Katrina Gilbert and her family are the focus of HBO's "Paycheck… (MICHAEL GOMEZ / HBO )
Near the beginning of the film "Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life & Times of Katrina Gilbert," a teacher at a day care center asks her charges: "Good choices get you what?"
"Good results!" the kids all say in unison.
Try telling that to Katrina Gilbert, who made good choices -- or at least didn't make terrible ones -- and still barely keeps her head above water.
Gilbert, a nursing assistant and single mother of three in Tennessee, is a walking representation of the self-perpetuating nature of poverty, making her the ideal subject of this documentary from HBO and Maria Shriver.
"Paycheck," to its credit, avoids direct political posturing. But it seems engineered to dismantle common conservative talking points about work and poverty.
For one thing, a wedding was not an automatic ticket to the good life -- Katrina was married at 19. Her husband's addiction to painkillers destroyed the relationship and left the family penniless. They remain separated but not divorced throughout the movie, apparently because divorce is too expensive. Katrina struggles to get child support for their children, since her husband has a hard time finding steady work.
Any objections to the Earned Income Tax Credit are meant to evaporate when we see the glee on Katrina's face after she gets her tax refund. "I can pay off my car!" she exclaims, or maybe get something for her kids, who didn't get birthday presents over the past year.
The word "Obamacare" is never uttered, but Katrina's poor health and lack of insurance are presented as nearly insurmountable barriers to success. She had to drop out of college due to a thyroid condition; when she tries to re-enroll she apparently can't get financial aid until she proves that her health problems are real. She has constant headaches, panic attacks and a thyroid that has been "swollen for months;" she can't begin to afford the more than $400 the pharmacy charges her for medication -- "I had to pick and choose which ones to get."
Subsidized day care keeps Katrina from having to use most of her paycheck on child care, and Head Start appears to be the best way to care for her son, who is exhibiting obsessive-compulsive tendencies.
At times, Katrina seems like a saint: supporting three kids, her estranged husband, her new boyfriend and a litter of kittens; living in a trailer park, then a mildewed, rotting house; spoon-feeding and singing Hank Williams with her charges at the nursing home. She hardly so much as swears in frustration. The most selfish thing she does -- and I use that term extremely loosely -- is treat herself to a birthday visit to the hair salon.
That's surely on purpose. The point of the documentary is to show that you can do everything right and still find yourself forced to sell the family dog on Craigslist. But the less angelic among us deserve sympathy too.
Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life & Times of Katrina Gilbert
8 p.m. Monday, HBO
Free on hbo.com through March 24
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