Eye-opening: My Thoughts on The Paycheck to Paycheck Documentary

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When I was in law school, I interned at the Legal Aid Center. One of my tasks was to help an elderly woman apply for jobs. Her name was Flossie and she was in her 80s. She was still quite spry but she needed to work in order to afford to live. I helped her create an email address and apply for CNA (certified nurse assistant) positions. I found her two jobs by the end of my internship to make up one full time job. I never heard back from her after that. But it’s crazy to be in your 80s and be a CNA. It’s as difficult as being a nurse but for much less pay.

I was reminded of Flossie after watching the documentary, Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert. 

Katrina Gilbert is also a CNA, but she’s 30 and has sole custody of her three young kids. She’s in the process of divorcing her husband, who had been battling an opioid addiction while they were married. He’s unemployed and lives far away so he doesn’t help with the children. Their kids go to daycare under a highly subsidized program. Katrina has a new boyfriend who also lives paycheck to paycheck – he puts sunblock and floaties on his credit card so the kids can go to the beach.

By the end of the documentary, the ex finds a job and takes over more care of the kids. Katrina has moved in with her new boyfriend, who has lost custody of his four daughters and will need to pay child support.

I think both sides of the political divide will have their judgments, but neither side has the solution that will get Gilbert out. Being a CNA, a single parent with three kids, no savings and no familial or friend support- there’s no happy ending there.

Liberals will push for a minimum wage increase. If the salary for a CNA increases, I think that would mean the elderly patients would have to pay more for care. That seems like an unpopular solution. As unlucky as the working poor are, Gilbert’s patients aren’t rich and they are not able-bodied. Raising state wages would likely backfire and the CNA employer would likely cut hours and staff. This would be a losing proposition for many.

But let’s say Gilbert is lucky to stay. Her childcare is on a sliding scale so she would have to pay more – eating up much of her paycheck. Also, it appears she will be the new breadwinner for her boyfriend. He doesn’t appear to have the means to chip in to help her, so his presence, rather than providing support, actually adds another mouth for Gilbert to feed. It may be worse if she has to chip in for his child care payments.

Conservatives will push for a higher Earned Income Tax Credit. You can see in the documentary that, after receiving her EITC, though Gilbert wisely uses some to pay off her car loan, she doesn’t save any for the future. So when the basement floods in July, she has no hope of paying for repairs until the next EITC the following year.

There’s a way where this might all work out. It involves the ex paying his part for their kids and Gilbert getting a better paying job with her recently acquired college degree. The kids will soon go to public school and they can be free of childcare expenses. All in all, Gilbert has a good demeanor, is hardworking, savvy and patient. I think the audience is supposed to have high hopes for her and the documentary is less dire than one would expect given the circumstances.

Overall, the documentary is a nuanced depiction of the struggles of a paycheck to paycheck family. I wish her well because it’s clear she walks a tightrope if she’s ever going to make it out of poverty.

Have you seen this documentary?

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