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Compelling face of today’s poor

A new HBO documentary, “Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert,” shows the face of poverty far too few people see or acknowledge. Through 30-year-old single mother Katrina Gilbert, who lives in Chattanooga, Tenn., struggling to make ends meet and care for her three children, the lives of millions of low-income single parents in America – an estimated 42 million of them women – are revealed. Gilbert, whose 10-year marriage ended when her husband developed a painkiller addiction, makes $9.49 an hour as a certified nursing assistant.

Her story tracks some we’ve written about on the editorial pages as we’ve examined poverty in North Carolina. Our state has the 12th highest poverty rate in the nation with more than 1.7 million N.C. residents poor. In this state, 41 percent of single-parent (primarily female-headed) families live in poverty. Sixty-four percent of households headed by single women in Charlotte-Mecklenburg are in poverty.

Gilbert now has a scholarship to college. The film had ended with her being rejected for financial aid. She now is also engaged to the boyfriend who is in the documentary. Gilbert was in Charlotte this week. Here is part of her conversation with Associate Editor Fannie Flono.

Q. How does it feel to have your story documented for the world to see?

It feels amazing. I’ve gotten lots of positive feedback. So many people are relating to me.

Q. When you were growing up, what did you think your life would be like?

I didn’t envision living paycheck to paycheck. I thought I’d go to college. Have a good career. I didn’t expect to be a single mom or go through a divorce.

Q. What about the rest of your family? Are they having the same kind of struggles?

I have two younger sisters and an older brother. My sister, the one down from me, she is a single mom of one. She lives in my mother’s house. She works where I work as a certified nursing assistant. She’s going to college to get her RN (registered nursing degree). My other sister, my youngest sister, she is also living at my mother’s house with her boyfriend and their daughter, who is 10 months old. She’s having a hard time. She’s the only one working. I don’t know if she has any hope or not – of getting out and having it better.

Q. What’s been the toughest thing for you?

The rejection from school. That was really hard. But there’s the stress of it all. You worry about the kids – whether they’re going to be sick this day. I have to go to work anyway. You worry about your car breaking down. Worry about not having enough money to pay a certain bill.

Q. Was your ex-husband part of the equation? Did he help?

Now that he is working again he does pay child support. He gets the kids every other weekend.

Q. The documentary shows you being so nice to him even when he wasn’t helping and you had to bear the whole load. You even helped him out. Why?

I let him stay at my trailer (after she moved to an apartment with her boyfriend) and he’s still there at my trailer. That’s something women need to do... They shouldn’t shut their children’s fathers out of their lives. If you can try to help them better themselves then do it. It didn’t just benefit him, it helped me out too... If my kids are going to be with him, I want to make sure he has the gas money, that he has the food in his house for them to eat.

Q. What would you like to tell policymakers about how they can help people who find themselves in your circumstances?

I think they need to open their eyes a little and look because there are so many people in poverty – and they don’t even realize that. If the corporate companies would just take a little less pay so someone like me, a nursing assistant, could get paid a little more – that’s all they would have to do. I think they need to open their eyes and discuss the situation. Women have to raise their voices and say we need sick days and we need benefits, higher pay. The cost of living just doesn’t match with our pay. It’s crazy.

I also think there need to be more places like Chambliss [a Chattanooga day care center that provides quality early childhood education, charges based on a parent’s ability to pay and is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week]. It’s a blessing. It’s an amazing place. My children learned so much.

When you’re first starting out in a job usually all you can get is second shift. What daycare is open second shift or third shift? Sometimes you’ve got to work those jobs before you can get to first shift. So a single mother, a single parent, if you don’t have anyone to help you, what are you going to do?

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