Putting a Face on the Working Poor

paycheck-to-paycheck2.jpgBy Natalie K. Midiri

In the few days that have passed since HBO aired the Shriver Report’s new documentary, “Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert,” the story of a single mother of three from Tennessee surviving on a $9.49 an hour income, the report has received harsh criticism throughout the blogosphere for choosing a white woman (Gilbert) to be the face of the working poor in America given that women of color are twice as likely to be members of the working poor. 

In many respects it’s obvious why Gilbert made the cut. We never once hear her raise her voice to her children, and she worries about how she will pay for the medication she needs to manage her thyroid. Despite the back-breaking nature of her work as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) at a nursing home, she still manages to tell the residents that they are not alone, that she -- if no one else -- loves them. While we do hear her admit that she could really use “some help,” we never once hear her complain about her 16-hour work days, even when going to work means leaving a sick child behind. In nearly all respects, Gilbert comes off as a member of the “good poor,” who deserve help only because they are completely self-sacrificing, committed to hard work and do not exhibit any of the destructive vices stereotypically associated with the poor.

Certainly, this “good poor” narrative obscures many of the realities of poor working mothers in America, especially when these mothers are women of color. It doesn’t account for the patterns of abuse that many women struggle to break out of as they work to provide for their families. It doesn’t account for the co-morbidity between poverty and mental health issues that add to many of the working poor’s fight to survive, nor does it account for the overlap between low wages and deeply unfulfilling work.

While I remain suspicious, to say the least, of any narratives that obscure people and issues in the communities they seek to represent, I do believe that Katrina Gilbert is an excellent choice on the Shriver Report’s part. I think that the value of Katrina Gilbert’s story stems from its ability to show how hard it is for the working poor to survive, even when they are doing everything “right.”

Take, for example, one of the central issues that comes up during the film, Gilbert’s child care arrangements. Gilbert draws from a number of sources for childcare so that she can bring home bi-weekly earnings of $765, putting her and her three children well below the federal government’s 2014 poverty line threshold. We see her make a nearly four-hour round trip to bring her children to see their father, even unbegrudgingly paying for his portion of the gas for the trip. She also is able to send her children to the Chambliss Child Care Center in Chattanooga, TN, a 24-hour child care facility that provides Head Start classes and offers reduced rates to low-income families. Finally, we see her rely on her boyfriend, also a single parent, to fill in here and there. But even with two other adults helping and affordable childcare, Gilbert lives in constant fear that her children will get sick and she will need to take an unpaid sick day to care for them, potentially losing the money for a utilities bill, car insurance, or even groceries.

Similarly, when Gilbert gets her tax return for the little more than $18,000 she earns in a year, she plans to get ahead on her car payments, see a chiropractor, and buy her prescriptions but she is never able to get ahead. After the cost of doctors' appointments without insurance, Gilbert has to pick and choose between which medications she needs most and has no money left over to get caught up with her bills.

We get a clear sense that Gilbert is not just unable to get ahead but caught in a system that leaves her barely able to subsist. Her low wages keep her desperate for work hours so she remains hyper-flexible for her employer.  She is admitted to community college, but it is unlikely that she could go back to school to change jobs while working 16-hour days in poor health and raising three children. Having access to protections like a living wage, health care and paid sick days would primarily provide Gilbert and her children some semblance of security so that a mere case of the flu wouldn’t result in a late bill or missing groceries. But such protections, basic to social democracies, wouldn’t just protect Gilbert from precarity. For Gilbert and the other 42 million women in America living in or on the brink of poverty, protections like the living wage, free or affordable health care and paid sick days truly extend some of the power to actually choose how they work.

Don’t have HBO? The documentary is available for free online from the Shriver Report. Interested in supporting the Chambliss Center for Children, one of the few 24/7 daycare providers in the country? Click here for more information.

 

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Natalie K. Midiri is a recent graduate of Rutgers University in Camden with a B.A. in rhetoric and composition. She runs a preschool co-op in Collingswood, NJ, and is an active member of Philadelphia DSA

 

 

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