When we talk about the challenge for today’s workers in finding balance between work and family, many may think of the need to telecommute, change work hours, or take a little time out of the workforce to be with children. Translated into pop culture, they think of movies like I Don’t Know How She Does It, where Sarah Jessica Parker plays a finance executive breadwinner, or the upcoming movie version of Lean In, which is sure to to center around the story of a professional woman like the book’s author Sheryl Sandberg and her fight for better parking and maternity leave when women get pregnant.
HBO’s Paycheck to Paycheck shows us a portrayal of women’s lives that’s less about work/life balance and more about work/life survival.
The movie is produced in association with the Shriver Report, a project that focuses on providing women a path to success. According to the group, one in three women –- 42 million total –- live in poverty or just on the brink, and 13 million are mothers of young children. Paycheck to Paycheck gives us a rare glimpse into one such woman’s life: Katrina Gilbert, a single mother of three children under the age of seven trying to make life balance while earning $9.49 an hour as a certified nursing assistant at a nursing home.
“Balance,” for her, looks like a constant string of impossible choices.
Paycheck to Paycheck confronts us with the questions we don’t hear most protagonists ask. When Katrina gets her paycheck, does she pay the rent, daycare, car insurance, her phone, or her storage unit? Once all of those expenses are met, “It’s gone,” she says of her check. “That’s for two weeks’ pay.” When she gets her Earned Income Tax Credit refund, does she pay off her car, get herself health insurance and visit the doctor, or finally buy her children birthday presents, something she couldn’t do the year before? After seeing the doctor and being prescribed $400 worth of medication for her constant headaches, thyroid condition, sinus infection, and panic attacks – a sum she can’t afford, saying she’ll have to pick and choose – what should she prioritize? Does she pay for her health bills or finalize her divorce?
What’s clear from the movie is how precarious life is when living so close to the edge of poverty. The realization that she can bring her sick daughter to her ex-husband’s house instead of taking a day off work avoids a potential financial catastrophe since she doesn’t get paid sick days. But when her shared home with her boyfriend floods, they don’t have any extra money to pay for the extensive clean up or to replace their belongings. When she’s turned down for financial aid to go back to school, her dream of finishing a degree and getting a better job appears out of reach.
Even just a little extra money would make all the difference. For much of the film, her ex-husband is struggling to find a job and isn’t paying the $550 in child support that he has been ordered to pay her. “I wouldn’t mind if it was $60,” she says. “Even if it was a tank of gas.”
Katrina, like many Americans, doesn’t want a hand out. The film opens with her pointing to a tattoo of a bird on her chest. “I fly with my own wings,” she translates from the Latin text above it. “I don’t need anyone else to hold me up.” But she knows she needs something to change to give her just a bit more breathing room. After her daughter tells her, “Mommy, you need help,” she says, “I was like, ‘I know I do.’”
Her story shows how small changes can have huge impacts. Getting a higher wage would make the bi-weekly choices of which bills to pay less difficult – and maybe a little extra would be left for her to get her hair done or let her kids keep the puppy they end up having to give away. A few paid sick days would assuage her anxiety when her children want to play outside when it’s wet and cold, risking falling sick. Financial aid would allow her to get a degree that would open up new career paths. Health insurance would mean that she wouldn’t face a nearly $300 bill when she visits the doctor for her chronic health problems.
The film ends with her describing how the cost she pays for subsidized daycare is going to rise while her family’s going to lose food stamps. The viewers are told that she got her first raise in two years after filming ended – 14 cents an hour.
In follow up interviews, it’s clear some good fortune has come her way. She has gotten a full scholarship to Chattanooga State Community College, now has health insurance thanks to the Obamacare marketplace, and is engaged. But even this good news doesn’t mean her impossible choices have been solved. She still doesn’t have food stamps, and when asked what politicians could do to help people like her, she says, “I think that raising the minimum wage… sick days would be great.” It’s those seemingly small and basic things that could truly balance a life like Katrina’s.