Once, as a child, I remember crying at the sight of a commercial for CARE. In the old days, we did not have 24/7, real-time access to the suffering of others, and I suppose the shock of it hit me in some way.
And then the years passed, and whether meaning to or not, we seem to have grown accustomed to what we see. As the entertainment industry grows ever more out-there in its portrayals of suffering, cruelty, and violence, the heart finds it better to harden, or be overwhelmed.
Which is why I was so thrown off when, at a screening of the new HBO Documentary, Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life & Times of Katrina Gilbert, I burst into tears. The focus of the film is Katrina Gilbert, a 30-year old Southerner and single mother with three young children. Her story is meant to put a face on the numbers, the 42 million women The Shriver Report counts as being on the ever-present brink of abject poverty—and the 23 million young children who depend on them.
Katrina Gilbert and her children live in a ramshackle trailer; they attend a daycare center specifically for the working poor, while she works as a certified nursing assistant in a nursing home. Her estranged husband’s painkiller addiction seems to have been the force that pushed them over the brink.
The film portrays a loving, hard-working, devoted mother, employee, and human being. Every so often, it even features a bit of humor, a moment to step outside the nearly low-grade hum of the struggles she faces every single day. She gets the children out before dawn, and herself to her job, where she earns a bit more than $9 an hour for the back-breaking and demanding work of caring for very old and very frail adults.
For me, there was no single moment that left me in tears, it was the accumulation of moments. Whenever Katrina seems to move up just a bit, some force pushes back. For those of us lucky enough to be well-paid, well-educated, well-heeled, such forces are invisible, and have no real effect on us. Miss a day of work? Your children will not go hungry. Katrina’s might, though.
I was a single mother of 3 under the age of 5—20 years ago. Watching Katrina reminded me of the heartache and fatigue of those years. It is so hard to work all day, and then come home to people who need and deserve your attention and energy. It is so overwhelming, the constant internal calculation of every single thing you do: If you buy the pool pass for a Sunday outing with the kids, can you fill your gas tank on Wednesday? If you want your former spouse to see his children, do you make space in your own home? Do you pay for a life-sustaining medical treatment, or rely on luck to stay out of the emergency room? Katrina cannot even afford to pay for the nasal spray that might help prevent her sinus infections.
Her story encompasses every major domestic policy challenge in America: the absolute inequity of low wages and the working poor. The always-behind world that results when their children do not have access to skilled and experienced early pre-K opportunities. The devastation created by the opioid epidemic. The warehousing of poor older adults, and our failure to build and honor a workforce to care for them. It seems relentless.
When you are living it, it is relentless. I watched the film with such respect and regard for this young woman, who simply gets up every day, gets going, gets it done. She was seated in front of me in the theater, and I so wanted to lean over to embrace her, and to tell her there is hope for the future.
But that is not true. Thanks to Paycheck To Paycheck, millions of people will hear her story and be inspired, and I suspect many will reach out to lift her. But that leaves 42,999,999 others still waiting, not for a hand out, but for a hand up.
I left the screening to cry in the bathroom, where I ran into Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro. I told her how upset I was, and she patted my arm. I thanked her for all that she and others like her are doing to persuade our policymakers and employers and leaders to pay attention to what women need—and to do something to make it easier for them to access it. Women like Katrina can be voiceless in our system—they are not K Street Corporations with lobbyists at the Palm—and people like Rosa (and Maria, and Neera Tanden, and so many others) are their voice.
The challenge is for the rest of us, away from the brink, to pull them back and lift them higher. The show aired last night on HBO, and streams elsewhere. Watch it: be moved, and then move. Sisters cannot, after all, do it all themselves.
To learn more about the film Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life & Times of Katrina Gilbert, click here.