April 9, 2014

A Review of HBO and The Shriver Report’s “Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert”

Posted in Commentary, Review tagged , , , , , at 7:18 am by Lund

Katrina Gilbert allowed cameras into her life for a year and the result is a thought provoking and heart wrenching documentary produced by The Shriver Report and HBO intended to show what life is like for one of the 42 million single mothers living in poverty in this country. 42 million women with 28 million children.  Katrina Gilbert is employed, she cares deeply about her kids and their future and she is trying all the time to make her situation better.  But she continually faces agonizing choices and setbacks from a system that at times seems to be actively preventing her from succeeding.  In order to attend her job as a certified nursing assistant she sends her three children to a daycare that is open 24 hours a day and can accommodate her early starts and late nights.  She spends a lot of time in the car, picking up children, dropping off children and running from errand to errand paying bills and picking up groceries.  This is a woman who does not often sit down.  She is exhausted and constantly stressed but she finds the energy to be a steadfast support to the elderly inmates at the care home where she works.  “You’re my buddy,” says one with an anxious quiver of questioning in his voice. “Always,” she replies.  For this physically and emotionally draining work, she is paid $9.49 an hour and after taxes takes home $730 biweekly which is eaten up instantly by rent, daycare fees, phone bills, storage rental.  She cannot afford the medication that she needs and in one sad scene at the beginning of the documentary sells the family puppy for $40 to buy food.   Despite all this work and worry, she is still an engaged and loving mom to her three kids.  She makes them pancakes, takes them to feed the ducks in the local park, brings them to the beach in the summer and helps them overcome their fears when their feet don’t touch the ground.  But she also has to take them with her to do her taxes in an insalubrious neighborhood long after bedtime, drive them for four hours to meet up with their father who is unemployed out of state, drop them off at 6am for a 12 hour stretch at daycare while she looks after the family of other people.  Katrina’s life is hard and she struggles and her kids know it.

One of her biggest struggles is trying to get out this situation.  She applies for college but is denied funding, she moves in a with a boyfriend so that her ex-husband can move into her previous residence and take a job he has secured nearby but the boyfriend’s house promptly floods and large parts of it are unlivable, she gets a raise but it’s only 11c an hour.  The more she works, the more her foodstamps are cut, it is a situation that seems destined to grind her into the ground.  No matter what she tries, she cannot seem to get ahead.  Her life is a serious of tradeoffs and tenuous, temporary situations.  There is no security, no guarantees for the future. It is hard to imagine anything changing.  It is hard to imagine that the life of her kids will be much different from her own.  Yet Kristina is doing all that she can.  The film constantly questions a society where a hard working woman is barely keeping her head above water and does not know from one week to the next how her life is going to be.  There is no light at the end of the tunnel.  This woman is barely surviving.

At the preschool graduation, the speaker promotes time and time again the importance of education.  The preschoolers are lined up in their red and yellow gowns holding their diplomas and you cannot help but wonder for how many of them this will be the only graduation they attend. Katrina’s young daughter, Lydia aged 5, poses with her brother and sister , her messy blond hair falling out from under her graduation cap, and smiles a gap toothed smile for her mom who snaps a picture with her cellphone.  This is a scene played out all over the U.S. but when Lydia walks out of the door of that gymnasium she is already walking a path divergent from many other kids.

The graduation scene is one of the few bright spots of this documentary which in so many ways just leaps from disaster to disaster.  Katrina is the one holding it all together – her life, her kids’ lives, her ex-husband’s life, her new boyfriend’s life, the kittens who have inexplicably shown up on their doorstep their lives too – but she is rapidly become unstuck.  Watch this film and think about this woman and the 41,999,999 others like her.

At Lund we help women to break these cycles of poverty, abuse and addiction with our integrated, family-centered treatment, education, family support and adoption services.  Each of them, like Katrina, has her own story of struggle and hardship to tell.  We are full of hope that when women leave Lund they are leaving with a strong chance to move beyond this paycheck to paycheck existence and to build bright futures for themselves and their children.


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