“Paycheck to Paycheck” creates conversation about women, money and poverty

Paycheck to Paycheck is the documentary that puts a face to the lived reality of the systemic socio-economic injustices bred and perpetuated by America’s misogynist and capitalist culture. Inspired by the multi-platform and nonprofit media initiative The Shriver Report series ”A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink,” Paycheck to Paycheck explores the daily struggles endured by women through the life of Katrina Gilbert, a single white mother of three from Chattanooga, Tennessee, who works a full-time job and lives below the poverty line.

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The documentary follows Gilbert as she navigates the daily grind, from caring for her children to working at her full-time, $9.49/hr paying job as a nursing assistant in an extended-care facility. She is overworked, underpaid, and uninsured; her husband, from whom she is separated (because of his addiction to painkillers), lives in Georgia and is unemployed, and therefore cannot adequately take care of the children, especially financially. She is the primary caregiver and sole breadwinner, but a paycheck based on a $9.49/hr paying job (roughly $18,000/year) means that she has to frequently decide, for instance, whether she will be able to pay for her children’s daycare—at the Chambliss Center, a subsidized facility that provides affordable daycare for the economically disadvantaged—or pay for the medication to help care for her Graves’ Disease.

Gilbert’s story is not unique. One in three women in America live in poverty or are on the brink of living in poverty. Working women in America hold two-thirds of the nation’s minimum wage jobs, most of whom receive no paid sick days. According to the Shriver Report, “the average woman continues to be paid 77 cents for every dollar the average man earns. The average African American woman earns only 64 cents and the average Latina only 55 cents compared to white men.”

education_fig2_malewageshigherthanwomenCourtesy of The Shriver Report

With these statistics in mind, one has to wonder about the chosen case study of a white woman, which is both glaringly deliberate and obvious, instead of delving into the life of a woman of color or a woman of another (gender or sexual) minority identity. As the Shriver Report notes in a companion piece, queer women earn less than their heterosexual counterparts, and the deficit is compounded in a family headed by a lesbian couple, or two paychecks at 77 cents to the man’s dollar: “Recent research shows that lesbian families are more likely than heterosexual couples to end up in poverty. Since women on average earn less than men, lesbian couples have two lower-paid earners, and are doubly discriminated against because of continued heterosexist employment discrimination, on top of the discrimination that lesbians experience as women, mothers, or people of color.”

The Report contends that “closing the wage gap between men and women would cut the poverty rate in half for working women and their families and would add nearly half a trillion dollars to the national economy.” But, it is difficult to be optimistic about this ever happening; the Obama Administration has faced unrelenting opposition regarding raising the minimum wage—to $10.10/hr over a three year period; it is unfathomable to imagine there being a dialogue about closing the wage gap between men and women, especially when there has been no serious talk about an Equal Rights Amendment in over thirty years in America.

Paycheck to Paycheck premieres tonight, March 17 at 9 p.m. EST, on HBO and will be available free to stream on HBO’s website for an entire week. (You can tweet along with @HBODocs and @ShriverReport during tonight’s premiere.) For those of us who have grown up in poverty or in the working class, the documentary is not at all revelatory but profoundly frustrating—how can we fight the system? Yet, if the intended audience is that of the elusive middle class and the wealthy 1%, Katrina Gilbert’s story is a sympathetic one—one that diffuses the egregious belief that the poor are just “lazy,” and if they only “worked harder” they too could take part in America’s wealth.

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