Movie Review - Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert (HBO)

Henry Martinez

"She flies with her own wings." With these words, Katrina Gilbert translates her tattoo and sets the tone for the remaining 73 minutes of the documentary. Her story is one of many untold stories in America. As the movie states in the opening, 42 million women in America— one in three— are living in poverty or teetering on its brink. More than 15 million are mothers of children. Katrina is the mother of three children, separated from her husband of ten years with, in her words, "nothing to show for those ten years but three beautiful children."

Katrina works full time as a Certified Nursing Assistant, earning $9.49/hr. As she ticks through a mental list of payments she needs to make, we get an idea of how quickly her paycheck is carved up and what little she has left after bills. There is a certain practicality and planning her situation demands as she manages her family's finances. This takes shape as she considers financial matters and recreational options for her children, like not letting them play outside when it is wet and cold because she can't afford to miss work (thus not get paid) if they get sick. Facing demands from work and family, the documentary shows Katrina as one who carries out her duties with tireless devotion. The movie clearly illustrates this comes with a price, and we see the toll it takes on Katrina's health.

At times it seems the documentary wants to show her as a woman just trying to hold on. As a result, hope seems elusive. In one scene she learns that she'll be receiving money back from a tax return and excitedly comments, "I can pay off my car!" She quickly names things she could put the money toward, and by the end of the list both excitement and money seem all but spent. There is another scene where her joy at being admitted to a local college is tempered by a rejection of her financial aid application. We keep waiting for something to go her way. We see someone to root for instead of someone to pity. And we want to root for her because she is doing it the way it "should" be done.

This isn't a picture of someone who is struggling with her own bootstraps. It is a story of someone who firmly has them in hand and is still barely able to cope. As Katrina's story unfolds, the directors emphasize (implicitly) the need for a more nuanced conversation about poverty, specifically one that doesn't end with mere employment. Instead we are asked to consider the importance of access to education, quality and affordable childcare, medical care and a living wage. While the movie does not present a clear call to action, it presents a story that is decidedly – unfortunately – American.

Katrina's story critiques the assumption that economic stability is within reach for most Americans if they simply work hard. The directors want us to see that her story is not merely an aberration in an otherwise reliable system, but that the system we have relied on for economic mobility is a failure. Rather than the exception, Katrina's story is rapidly becoming the rule in an increasingly harsh economy.

Of course the extent to which the viewer identifies with Katrina Gilbert is subjective. If her story is just one of the one in three women in America, the chances are likely there are Katrina Gilberts in our congregations and communities. Our challenge is whether or not we see her story as one that is the backbone of our future and intrinsically connected to our own well-being. It is recognizing that economic vulnerability is a reality in our midst. As a result, people of faith will find this movie particularly useful if they are willing to explore what resources are within their midst not only to help people like Katrina weather the storms of their lives, but to put their energies toward seeking systemic change. It calls to mind the work the ELCA is doing to strive for gender justice and fair minimum wage standards.  The movie puts to rest the question of whether the systems of support in our communities are adequate, and leaves room for us to imagine how we might care for our neighbors who are weary from flying alone.    

Availability: Currently the movie can only be streamed on HBO GO; you can also find more information about the movie, see a trailer and discussion guide from HBO.

Henry Martinez is Program Associate for Hunger Education with ELCA World Hunger.