Gloria Steinem on HBO’s ‘Paycheck to Paycheck’: “We Should Be Mad As Hell”

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If there’s anything to be taken away from the HBO documentary Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert, it’s that as a country, America — the ideals and opportunity that our very constitution is based on — has failed. Our failure is detailed in Paycheck to Paycheck, directed by Shari Cookson and Nick Doob and produced through Maria Shriver’s new project The Shriver Report, which portrays the life of a 30 year-old woman and member of the working poor, Katrina Gilbert. From March 17-24, Paycheck to Paycheck will be available for free viewing on HBO.com, ShriverReport.org, and YouTube.

In this era where Beyoncé-as-feminist-icon — which I’m all for! — can kick off scads of Internet fights over things like her Shriver Report essay or her team-up to “ban bossy,” a product like Paycheck to Paycheck does an excellent job of taking feminist issues and ideals into the realm of the real, showing how government and economics affects a real woman with real problems and putting a human face on a statistic that’s often vilified.

A single mother of three children (three, five, and seven years old), Gilbert works as a Certified Nurse Assistant at a nursing home, producing care and support for the elderly and infirm, and she’s good at her job. We see her comforting a crying woman who “has nobody,” and singing songs with an older man in a wheelchair who says, “You’re my buddy.” It’s difficult, draining work, and Gilbert is paid $9.49 an hour without benefits, which translates to a check of $730.00 every two weeks, and a yearly salary of about $18,000.

Gilbert is separated from her husband of ten years, Jeremy; the marriage fell apart when he developed an addiction to pain pills. He lives two hours away from his family and is trying to help out with care, but he can’t do much and he can’t contribute much. (Child support should be at least $490 a month.) Gilbert wakes up every day in the dark and gets her children dressed and off at the Chamblis Center, which is a daycare center specifically for low-income families.

“The Working Poor” are often conjured up by politicians as an effective strawman against public policy; after all, they are easily villainized or condescended to as lazy wastes of food stamps, not even human, proof of governmental excess. There are 42 million Americans who walk in Gilbert’s shoes. The heartbreaking truth of the film is that Gilbert is trying, trying so hard and never taking a break. Her work helps others. She leaves her kids with other low-paid women taking care of their education. If one of her kids gets sick, that means unpaid leave from work and not enough money to get by. When Gilbert gets her tax return, that money goes to trips to the doctor, and she has to pick and choose what she can afford from her expensive prescriptions, leaving out the prescription for her Graves’ disease because “it’s too much.”

What Paycheck to Paycheck does, effectively, is show the day-to-day life of a woman who is working poor. In a discussion following the film, Gloria Steinem, Shriver, and Gilbert sat down to discuss what the country can do so that the poor can survive in America.

Gilbert, who received news that Chattanooga State University offered her a full scholarship for study, hopes that her experience making the documentary will facilitate some difference. “It’s just your storm but you can get through it,” she counseled, also adding that, if she had any advice for younger people, it would be to finish college before becoming a mother. When her coworkers saw the documentary, they said, “I didn’t know you struggled that much. I had no idea.” Gilbert continued, “At work, I didn’t show it.”

Feminist legend Steinem urged people to get active, to see if they could push policy change forward. “Maybe it’s my hope-aholism — I’m a hope-aholic — but we had a great organizing movement, it fell down in various ways, but what’s out there right now is interesting.” Women are organizing for higher minimum wage, paid sick days, and childcare. “We should be mad as hell,” Steinem said. We should have free college, no debt, childcare that doesn’t cost as much as college, and like every other industrialized country, universal health care.

In The Shriver Report, Shriver added, the women polled said that “paid sick days would be a game changer.” What women want, she said, is a life where men are spending time with their children, where women aren’t stuck with every task. The care economy is underpaid, largely female, and working for minimum wage. “Everyone in this story is trying,” Shriver said, and Gilbert’s story “says things statistics can’t say, that reports can’t say. There’s millions behind her.”