TV Review: ‘Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life & Times of Katrina Gilbert’

Paycheck to Paycheck The Life and

Television news frequently uses personal stories to shed light on broader issues, an approach that works to varying degrees. While the message in “Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life & Times of Katrina Gilbert,” comes through loud and clear, it’s rendered slightly numb via this collaboration of HBO and Maria Shriver, which focuses on the struggles of one single mother to illuminate those of the 42 million women living near or below the poverty line, along with the 28 million children who depend on them, according to the show. Spare and troubling though the documentary may be, its anecdotal strategy produces the feeling in this instance that less is, indeed, less.

Filmed over the course of a year, Gilbert’s story is designed to put a face on the issue of poverty — and to provide a not-so-thinly-veiled rejoinder to the conservative media’s message that most poor families headed by single moms are welfare slackers. Far from that here, Gilbert, a 30-year-old mother of three living in Tennessee, is working at an extended-care facility as a nursing assistant while trying to further her education, and relying on subsidized day-care for her kids.

As for her job tending to the sick and elderly, Gilbert sums it up with resignation but not bitterness: “$9.49 an hour, for what we do.”
With so many still struggling, “Paycheck to Paycheck” provides an unvarnished look at the working poor, and women in particular, seeking to pull themselves up but seemingly held back by a system that doesn’t offer much hope beyond mere sustenance. The docu shows that Gilbert has little margin for error, with any setback — financial or otherwise — having the potential to throw the family into a tailspin.

Such advocacy pieces, however, need to be actually seen to generate maximum impact, and the storytelling style here (as produced and directed by Shari Cookson and Nick Doob) feels more designed for screenings at progressive think-tanks than an attempt to reach out beyond the Beltway.

By that measure, “Paycheck to Paycheck” is solidly executed — the sort of longform personal account only HBO or PBS seemingly have much appetite to provide. As constructed, though, it’s not apt to have much impact, or be acknowledged, in today’s age of self-selecting media, by many of the people who most need to see it.

TV Review: 'Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life & Times of Katrina Gilbert'

(Documentary; HBO, Mon. March 17, 9 p.m.)


Produced by Mackerel Sky Films and the Shriver Report.


Executive producers, Sheila Nevins, Maria Shriver; senior producer, Nancy Abraham; producers, Shari Cookson, Nick Doob, Sascha Weiss; directors, Cookson, Doob; editor, Charlton McMillan. 74 MIN.


With: Katrina Gilbert

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  1. Anad says:

    This documentary was fascinating to me because thirteen years ago, this was me. I went to LPN school and I do make more money but a back injury is close to putting me in the same position. One thing I have read in the comments sections, consistently, is that she shouldn’t have gotten her hair done. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? For someone to treat themselves one time? I had no idea that there were so many assholes in the world.

  2. sammy says:

    I was shocked while watching this video, but not for the same reason that you probably are. Anyone who is on a fixed, limited income, has no business owning a dog, much less spending upwards of 100 dollars at the hair salon, or bending over for some doctor who probably owns two Mercedes Benz cars, shamelessly charging this young single woman upwards of $300 for an office visit, or wasting money on expensive soft drinks (one per day can cost 45 dollars per month/540 dollars per year — probably explaining some of her health issues, certainly her drastic financial issues), or paying a tax preparer a huge fee to do something that any person with reasonable intelligence can do for themselves (explains the huge smile on the raptor with a dress shirt and tie), or feeding children junk food, which explains the snot noses and illness. Not until we teach frugal lifestyle to our youngsters, can we ever expect to put a damper on the cycle of poverty among adults. This young single mom is an emotional train wreck waiting to happen. Had she had a proper role model, I can envision her as a vibrant, successful, emotionally content parent, commanding for herself and her family whatever her heart desires. You could double minimum wage, and it would not improve the situation, any more than the government has improved this country by doubling its income during the past 10 years. I know plenty of high-income people who are in worse shape than she is, all owing to personal mismanagement of some sort.

    • anonymous says:

      I know this woman personally and she is not as poor as you think she is working as needed now she got a lot of kickbacks from this documentary but even before that she wasnt as broke as she claims to be she was making it just fine mismanagement of money for sure

  3. xstitchmama says:

    Actually seymore she was married and is now divorced. The father lives 4 hours away and is without a steady job as well. It did appear from what I saw of the show that they had a good relationship for awhile. It’s my understanding all the children were born while they were married.

  4. Daquan says:

    I completely disagree with the columnist’s evaluation here. First, though anecdotal, it appears to be a fair representation of a larger group. Its impact of course will be relative to its viewership. It is time worth spending on television.

  5. seymore says:

    …education, birth control !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Ann says:

      I agree, Seymore!!!There are enough people who fall under such circumstances legitimately (i.e. economy, etc) who have education. But this young woman started out wrong and continues to compound each mis-step with another: Living with yet another man; spending the entire tax return, not bothering to save for a rainy day. She vacillated between buying medication or some spending money on some other menial expense. But had no trouble spending almost $100 for a salon visit? This was also evident when the house flooded in July and they would have to wait until they received tax refunds in the proceeding year. Really? She’s struggling to take care of a home that is someone else’s I also find it interesting that she resumed the relationship with the boyfriend the minute she received her own tax returns. With three dependents, you can be sure she received at least 7,000.00. I’m also curious about why she could not have some sort of medical assistance card/program to aid in the purchase of buying medications. Every county has some type of funding. As the old saying goes, “You can do bad all by yourself”. I’m baffled about why she would have a relationship with a man who has his own child support issues, and custody issues. Another point I noted is, she had dropped too many classes, hence, the need to file an appeal with the Fin Aid dept. at Dalton State University. Excuses, excuses, be a WOMAN just start making strides to do it, and before she knows it she’ll see some level of progress. That may mean she’ll have to relocate or get a second job. But for god’s sake stop having these damn babies, that only delays your progress. The three she has are obviously out of control and she has no room/patience for others right now.

    • CS says:

      Comments such as yours only perpetuate the UNEDUCATED pov and age old stereotype. Even a highly educated middle income wage earner can find herself in the unfortunate position of being a single mother. It could be souse/partner’s cheating, death, abuse, you name it. To spout birth control is ignorant at best. With white collar jobs little is done with incentivizing employees with sick days, simple necessities for single mothers. With this particular documentary, you don’t have to imagine how much greater the difficulty when earning minimum wage. The system does make it harder.

      • Angela says:

        I think some of the commentors have never been poor or have forgotten what it’s like being poor. I grew up poor & after struggling while young & marrying young, making poor choices & struggling through many more years until finally having some degree of success, I eventually managed to go back to school, buy property, & raise my child. After all that, I find myself back on a fixed income that makes me nearly living paycheck to paycheck again, after being disabled from doing similar work this young lady has done. Life in general, has it’s ups and downs, ebbs & flows. Yes, people sometimes make poor choices with their money. No matter where you are on the socioeconomic level, people still make poor choices educated or not. I know why they do. Most times it’s lack of basic education due to an educational system which focuses solely on preparing kids for higher learning elsewhere, or even some technical career, but not focusing on money management, budgeting, how to use a check book, checking account, & savings account & especially how not to use a credit card. This is why you still see 40 yr olds still struggling living paycheck to paycheck & people who go bankrupt often. This should be corrected by teaching these skills in junior high and high school. That’s part of the problem, the other is lack of jobs in this economic down turn. The government should have not encouraged or allowed business’ to outsource to foreign countries. For a country to have a strong economy we need to keep our money here as much as possible & exporting equally as much as importing. Also, not to continue to allow immigration here, when our own people born here, cannot find jobs. That is economic suicide. We need to vote out people who do not have any sense on how to handle a budget & that runs a rampantly corrupt system. Also stop sending billions to other countries when we cannot even balance our own budget. Now as for that girl taking 87 dollars & spending it on her hair, yes, that is foolish, but you don’t understand being poor. Sometimes you need to splurge on something for yourself or you go crazy. The girl is depressed, stressed out, worrying all the time, causing herself anxiety, migraines, & probably other ailments. She’s trying to do what’s right & struggling to support herself & her kids, & from the looks of it, trying to support an ex- husband, & a struggling boyfriend. The girl is guilty of feeling lonely, being kind, & generous. She works hard & is paid little, trying to get herself into college & take care of her health the best she can in a system that is ridiculous on the costs of medicine and healthcare. Give her a break! She’s not sitting home on welfare. She’s also entitled to love & be loved, & have a family like everyone else. Things will get better for her in time, because she does not give up trying to better herself. She’s not a slacker, she just needs some guidance & help. Where are the grandparents to these kids?? Why aren’t they stepping in and helping her? Brothers? Sisters? What has happened to the American family? People need each other, especially during hard times. They also need morals & God in their lives. Church helps people. Church is an extended family & helps each other in times of need. America is in a downward tailspin, due to moral decay & the breakdown of family & community.

  6. jsanjuan1967 says:

    Too many people are struggling to make end means. We need to understand what kind of poverty that hurts children. Mothers need more work and experience to look for jobs out there. Do something is more important than do nothing. See these differences?

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