By Peggy Dator
Vice-Chair, BCWAC Health Care Committee
I was looking forward to viewing the HBO Documentary produced by Maria Shriver about The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert. As a professionally trained social worker of 40-plus years, I found myself automatically in “assessment” mode…looking for the factors in the person’s life that got them to this point, including their choices, maturity level, emotional and intellectual capacity, general health and their support system. When Katrina started off by pointing out her tattoo – I hate tattoos – it wasn’t looking good.
A brief summary of the Paycheck to Paycheck story, in case you miss it: Katrina was 19 when she married Jeremy. They had three children a year or two apart. After 10 years of marriage, Katrina left Jeremy after he developed an addiction to pain medications. She moved out on her own with her three young children and it took eight months for her to get a job. With simply a high school diploma, she ended up working as CNA in a nursing facility. She receives $9.49/hour, working full time, and got a raise after two years of 14 cents an hour. She has no health insurance and no paid sick days. She has thyroid disease and other acute issues that all require medication management, but she can’t afford to pay the high cost of her medical visits, testing and necessary medications, so she rarely seeks medical care, gets no real preventive care, and doesn’t buy the $400 worth of prescribed drugs every month. Katrina makes every effort to enable a relationship between her ex-husband and the children. Katrina went so far as to move out of her trailer so Jeremy could move in and take a local job. Katrina and the kids moved in with a new boyfriend, and he subsequently lost custody of his four kids and has to pay financial support and is also stuck financially. Katrina is considering enrolling in a training program to become a radiology technician, but learns she is not eligible for financial aid due to having previously dropping out of an LPN training course due to untreated medical issues.
I tried to look at this film through a microscope in anticipation of what will certainly be critics of Katrina, her choices, and her dependency on taxpayer support to care for her family…subsidized day care, earned income tax credits, and the recently criticized by some as the great leacher of our national budget, food stamps.
What struck me was that Katrina seems to be a good mom, loves her children and treats them appropriately. So does Jeremy, the dad, who got a job and kicked his addiction. Katrina is a very caring worker and I would be thrilled if she cared for my elderly family members. She wants to get ahead and make a better life for herself and her children. Her kids are in a stimulating day care that operates 24/7 and she receives governmental support to be able to afford it. In fact, this was the most significant support in both her and her children’s lives; this type of day care is exceedingly rare. She appears, however, to have no close friends or any family support except for the two men in her life, neither of which are financially stable enough to help her out. It’s easy to understand her struggle with no support system, but the film does not delve into the reasons for this.
All in all, I saw Katrina’s struggle as not all that dissimilar from most women’s struggles. Her biggest problem is a lack of adequate education and training to develop a career path that will lead her to better wages and better working conditions. She is clearly not looking for a handout, but for a hand-up. As her tattoo says, in Latin, “I fly with my own wings.”
Paycheck to Paycheck – The life and times of Katrina Gilbert may be viewed this week at HBO.com, shriverreport.org, or on YouTube.org/HBODocs, then search by title. I encourage everyone to watch it. Hopefully you will gain a better understanding of the need to improve social policy so that it truly supports and motivates women and families.