"It's like she can't win for losin'." This is something my grandmother — who worked in a shirt factory for most of her life in rural Tennessee — used to say about seeing the struggle to make ends meet. And it's what I still think of when I see stories about poverty in this country.
Katrina Gilbert can't win for losing. This is brilliantly illustrated in a documentary about a year in her life, and poverty in America, called Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert, which just aired on HBO. It's a Maria Shriver-produced doc that shows Gilbert doing what it takes to get by in Chattanooga, Tenn. In her case that means living in a trailer, busting ass for $9.49 an hour at a nursing home, working 18 hours on the weekends, ignoring her own medical condition (Graves disease), forgoing insurance and school, and driving four hours to make sure her three kids see their nice, but struggling dad, whom she left after he got addicted to painkillers. He is not employed, but still aims to be in their lives. Her only daycare for most of the film is a 24-hour state-assisted childcare center, used by many women just like her, and with a waiting list some 200 kids long.
Her situation is exhausting, and yet, compared to the other 42 million women who make up her demographic in this country, it's not that different.
Or is it? Over at Slate, LV Anderson seems to think it is. She seems to think that Gilbert's saintliness is going to overshadow the poor people who aren't so great but who need help, too. Is Katrina Gilbert "too sympathetic"?
Talk about can't win for losin', grandma — sheesh. Hang on, I just need to sit here rolling my eyes for about one thousand years.
OK. Done. Am I still alive? Does Gilbert have food stamps yet? No? Ok.
Yet few people, be they rich or poor, behave with as much forbearance, compassion, and hopefulness as Gilbert does in Paycheck to Paycheck. This isn't a criticism of Gilbert—she truly is amazing. But the poor people who are less extraordinary and less overtly likable than Gilbert need help, too. Watching Paycheck to Paycheck, I couldn't help thinking about the New York Times' gripping "Invisible Child," Andrea Elliott's recent profile of an 11-year-old homeless girl in New York named Dasani. Dasani is surrounded by adults who often make bad decisions, and Dasani makes some bad decisions, too—but Elliott makes it clear that they would all benefit considerably from robust social safety nets.
Sorry, what? Does Anderson know a wide swath of poor people to know that most of them are unlikable dicks? Are most people unlikable dicks? Does she not see why Katrina Gilbert is a hopeful, nice person in spite of it all?
She's in her twenties, for one thing. She hasn't been beaten down for decades yet. She's resilient — this has been known to occur in members of the species. She seems to love her still very young kids and want to put them first. She has an upbeat personality — you don't gotta be rich to hit that jackpot. And probably, and hang on, cause this is gonna sound bewildering — but her life probably does not seem as bad to her as it might to viewers.
In fact, in an interview, Gilbert said herself that obviously she knew she was struggling, but it took seeing the documentary to realize to what extent:
Did you think of yourself as someone on the brink?
Oh yeah, I knew I was, that's why I would be working 16-hour days. Pick up my off days so I'd be working 16 days straight just to make sure that I had money for the bills and what we needed. There are lots of other women that I work with, they do the same thing, they work 16 hours on the weekends.
Has being part of the documentary changed your perspective on anything?
After I watched it for the first time, I was just taken aback for a minute. I was like, wow, that's really my life. I guess living it you just don't really see it. When you're on the outside looking in, and you see it like that, it's just a shock.
Anything in particular that struck you?
Just how hardworking I was and I've overcome so much. I would think sometimes in my mind that I'm not a good mom but after watching that I can say I am a good mom.
For what it's worth, many people do not think Gilbert is a saint at all. Specifically, the commenters on Anderson's OWN PIECE quickly made hash of her argument that Gilbert is somehow exempt from criticism. They did this by scrutinizing nearly every single misstep they could identify from the doc, such as:
Gilbert had the gall to spend $87 on a haircut in the same scene where she laments forgoing her own prescriptions because they cost too much
She married an addict who is now jobless
Her new boyfriend has four daughters and midway through the doc (SPOILER) he loses custody and can't swing the child support, thereby leaving Gilbert to cover the bills yet again
She got a tattoo, which is probably preventing her from getting a better job (LOLOLOLOL)
She had too many kids
I don't agree with any of these ludicrous criticisms, by the way, in case that's not utterly transparent. I reproduce them here (paraphrased) to illustrate the fact that anyone looking for reasons to not give a shit about poverty or Katrina Gilbert will find them with or without Shriver's documentary because they will be looking for them from the outset.
Shriver's aim with Paycheck to Paycheck is to start a national conversation about minimum wage, paid sick days, and affordable child care and health care—the policies that would help all manner of vulnerable people. But putting such a saint at the center of her campaign (or, at least, only showing Gilbert's saintly side) is a decision that could backfire. Paycheck to Paycheck is certain to make anyone who watches it want to help Gilbert and other "good" poor people, but that desire to help might not translate to people like Dasani's parents.
But by taking the game of Let's Tally This Single Mom's Bad Choices off the table, Shriver is starting that conversation and helping us not lose focus: People who work hard and try harder still can't get a break.
I think the problem here is also thinking of poor people as "good" or "bad" in the first place, not to mention that to suggest that Gilbert is somehow not representative of most poor people because she is too nice or kind seems extraordinarily cynical to me. It seems to miss the point that this is a documentary, not a reality show. We just get a part of her life, and the part that is most useful is not Gilbert being a jerk in some situation, it's how much work she does to just get by.
And in my experience, many people struggling in poverty are a lot like Gilbert. Many are not. They are not good or bad, but rather a mixture of circumstance and choice and disposition and wellness. And in situations where poverty is legacy, the choices are never that great to begin with. It's correct that it takes exhausting vigilance to break out of that cycle. But it also takes exhausting vigilance to survive it, which is what this documentary so brilliantly depicts.
And besides: No matter how great Katrina Gilbert is or isn't, she still needed someone to throw her a bone. Her forbearance and compassion and hopefulness didn't get her foodstamps or a raise better than 14 cents an hour after two years of stellar work.
As of now, she doesn't have food stamps still, but she has insurance thanks to ObamaCare, and she was awarded full scholarship to Chattanooga State. Does this solve the problem for everyone? No, but what can is more stories about more people that show the wide range of situations people in poverty face.
Another one of Anderson's commenters, "inapickle," nailed it:
Why is it not valid to show that a white woman who was married to her husband when she had children, who has tried to get an education which will lead to a higher paying job, who is employed, who is not addicted and is not abusive is still stuck in poverty? Wouldn't some people who say, "that's so sad, but what can you expect under X circumstances?" possibly begin to think a bit harder about the world we live in after watching this? This documentary probably won't help the millions long term either, but it's not going to hurt them either, and some people will see it and remember that wages in America are terrible and make it really, really hard for most people to get beyond subsistence level work and living.