Monday night, the Maria Shriver–produced documentary Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert will premiere on HBO. (It will also be available to stream for free all week.) The film is the most visible component of the Shriver Report, Shriver’s campaign to draw attention to poverty’s outsized effect on American women. Forty-two million women live in poverty, the Shriver Report informs us, and 28 million children. Paycheck to Paycheck takes a microscopic view of this vast problem, chronicling a year in the life of one Tennessee woman and her three young kids.
Does spending an hour and a half with four people living in a trailer on an income of around $18,000 a year sound like a downer? It isn’t, or at least not entirely. That’s because Katrina Gilbert, the charismatic 30-year-old at the center of the film, is an extraordinarily sympathetic character.
Gilbert works long days as a certified nursing assistant in a nursing home, where she earns $9.49 an hour and exhibits enormous patience with and affection for her elderly charges. We never see her snap at her son or two daughters. She applies for college because she wants to improve her situation and do right by her kids; when she’s denied financial aid, she stays positive, keeping up that can-do attitude. She’s smart about the men in her life, too: She leaves her husband after he confesses to a painkiller addition. After he kicks the habit, she drives her children hours so they can spend time with him. She begins dating a sweet, supportive single father named Chris. Gilbert is also white and pretty, characteristics that no doubt factored into the filmmakers’ decision to profile her.
At the Paycheck to Paycheck premiere in New York last Thursday, Shriver, on a panel with Gilbert and Gloria Steinem, shed some light on how she and the directors settled on Gilbert as the subject of their film. In response to an audience member’s question, Shriver said:
I think we talked a lot about what we wanted in the story, the issues that we wanted to come out in someone’s life … We looked at lots of different women, different stories, and everyone felt that her story and she was the best. And I think what’s really great about Katrina’s story also is I think her ex-husband is trying to be involved in the children’s lives. Her fiancé now, Chris, is working to be involved. … Everybody in this story is trying, and that’s what I really like about it.
Indeed, all the adults who appear in the film seem to have great integrity. This makes sense from a documentary filmmaking perspective: If you want audiences to care about your subject matter, you need to show them characters they’ll connect with. A single mother with obvious character flaws—a drug addiction, or a tendency to yell at her kids, or exhaustion from a lifetime of never being able to get ahead, for instance—wouldn’t elicit nearly as much sympathy from middle- and upper-class audiences as Gilbert does.
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.
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.
At the Paycheck to Paycheck premiere, an HBO executive announced that Chattanooga State University was offering Gilbert a full scholarship. This is a wonderful development for Gilbert and her family. And it makes Chattanooga State look good. But it doesn’t do anything for the other 41,999,999 American women living in poverty.