Unless you’ve been asleep for the last 50 years, you probably know that the American Dream is on life support. The disappearance of blue-collar jobs combined with wage stagnation, sky-rocketing higher education costs, and unaffordable health care have all contributed to a harsh national reality in which socio-economic mobility is just a pipe dream for most Americans, and the neediest of this country’s citizens have little to no hope of ever doing anything more than keep their heads above water. Did I say the American Dream was on life support? Maybe I was wrong. Maybe it’s already flatlined.
Among the estimated 42 million women (and the 28 million children that depend on them) who stand teetering on the financial brink is Katrina Gilbert, a 30-year-old mother of 3 who lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and works as a certified nurse’s assistant at a nursing home, making $9.49/hour as she changes bed pans, wipes noses, and holds the residents when they cry. Gilbert is the subject of Paycheck to Paycheck, a new HBO documentary (made in conjunction with The Shriver Report), that premieres tonight at 9pm and is available for free all week on HBO.com, YouTube, and ShriverReport.org. Gilbert stands in for the millions of Americans who make up this country’s “working poor,” for the millions of mothers who can’t afford to throw their children birthday parties, for the millions of wives who are the sole breadwinner in their marriages, for the millions of women who can’t afford the medicine they need to manage chronic conditions.
Although the subject matter is inherently emotional (you try not to cry when Gilbert reassures her nursing home patients that they’re not alone but are, in fact, loved, or when Gilbert finds out that she’s been turned down for financial aid after finally being accepted to college), the film itself presents its subject matter in as unsentimental a way as possible. While it’s true that any film in which the subject is a hard-working woman caring for the elderly and infirm, and which also features three adorable kids (Brooklynn, 7; Lydia, 5; and Trent, 3) and even a cuddly puppy (who is eventually sold on Craigslist for $40), is going to automatically pull at the audience’s heart strings, it’s also true that this is Gilbert’s reality. Her story might be more emotionally resonating than most, but it’s still her story. It’s still the life she’s living. And the film makes it very clear that Gilbert is not in it alone. She is separated from her un- and then underemployed husband of 10 years, but he is involved with their children and helps with childcare because he can’t help much with money. And she has a boyfriend whose home she and her kids move into when Gilbert decides to give her trailer home to her husband so that he can live closer to his children. But perhaps the biggest help in Gilbert’s life comes from Chattanooga’s Chambliss Center for Children, a daycare and pre-school for low-income families which provides all three of Gilbert’s children with a caring, educational environment that won’t eat up all of her paycheck. Gilbert is strong, yes, but her strength would not be enough to feed and shelter her family if she didn’t have the help of external resources, like the Chambliss Center or like the Food Stamp program. Paycheck to Paycheck is as much about the heroism of federal and state programs that aid the working poor as it is about the heroism of the individuals themselves, and it forces the audience to reconsider the idea that there will be any individual success stories in America if we fail to collectively look after the millions of people who need help.
I watched Paycheck to Paycheck in a private screening room on the 15th floor of the HBO building that sits just off Bryant Park and features a reception room with towering windows that offered a beautiful view of the Empire State Building glowing a dusky pink in the fading late winter light. Cocktails were served before the film. French fries in paper cones were gobbled up by Gilbert’s three young children, who were all dressed up to attend the premiere. After the film finished, Gilbert, Maria Shriver, and Gloria Steinem took the stage to take questions from the audience and to lead a conversation about the plight of low-income women in America. Most of the people in the audience that night were women, and most, I think it’s safe to say, do not lead lives like Katrina Gilbert’s. And not just because we don’t work for under $10/hour without benefits, but also because most live in New York, a state that has a higher minimum wage than Tennessee and offers more comprehensive health care coverage, particularly for large families with a combined income of under $20,000/year. We had all just spent an hour-and-a-half watching Gilbert’s life together, and yet it also couldn’t be more different than most of ours. What could we do? How could we make some sort of difference in Gilbert’s plight or in those of the tens of the millions of women like her?
“Vote,” Shriver said when I asked how it was possible to change the life of someone who was denied certain fundamental rights and benefits just by virtue of where she’d been born. “Write about what you saw,” Shriver continued. Which, coming from a journalist whose family has long been involved in politics, seemed like too pat of an answer. Because I do vote. And I do write. And so do countless other people. And yet the working poor in this country—particularly women, particularly mothers, particularly minorities—are struggling in countless ways and are the casualties of politicians hellbent on preventing not only universal healthcare, but also women’s right to healthcare in particular. “We should be mad as hell,” Steinem said, and then called herself a “hope-aholic,” citing her past “great organizing movement, [which] fell down in various ways,” then saying, “but what’s out there right now is interesting.” Except, you know, interesting doesn’t cut it. Action is what matters and it’s hard to get too excited about stalled movements right now when so many millions of women and children are teetering on the brink. It’s also hard to get too excited by references to past “great organizing movements” when the benefits of second-wave feminism were overwhelmingly middle- to upper-class, educated white women. The 60s and the 70s were times of great social movement and unrest, but when the dust settled, there were a lot of people who were still left behind (the exclusionary nature of the women’s rights movement in the 70s is legendary—women of color, low-income women, and those who didn’t identify as heterosexual were not included in meaningful ways), and those are the people who are suffering the most today, including Katrina Gilbert.
I would like to think that my vote would mean something in the life of Katrina Gilbert and in the lives of the millions like her. And I would like to think that my writing could make a difference too. But when so many millions of Americans are struggling in silence in parts of the country where the powerful people have almost no incentive and no desire to help, it can feel futile and frustrating to be applauding a film while sitting in what is not quite an ivory tower, but comes pretty damned close. But maybe frustration is a good thing. Maybe frustration can spur on action. Maybe this film will be viewed by people all over the country who will feel mad as hell and who will fight for a higher minimum wage and fight for funding for places like the Chambliss Center and fight for better financial aid packages and fight for paid sick days and fight for affordable health care for everyone and fight and fight until it’s possible to finally bury the old idea of the American Dream. The streets aren’t going to be paved with gold for everyone. Disneyworld vacations won’t happen every year for every family. But we can at least work to provide a reality for people where they won’t have to worry about feeding their children or filling their prescriptions. Get mad as hell. And let’s see what happens.
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