Portrait of a working woman

Chattanooga’s Chambliss Center began in 1872 as an orphanage. It has since morphed into a limited residence program for displaced teens and a 24-hour daycare center for working parents. The center’s mission is “to preserve family unity and to help prevent the dependency, neglect, abuse and delinquency of children by responding to the community’s childcare needs.”

For a year producer Maria Shriver shadowed a mother who depends on Chambliss services, as part of a documentary series on the working poor. Recently our Sunday school class decided to take a look at Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert (see http://shriverreport.org/special-report/a-womans-nation-pushes-back-from-the-brink/). The film presents a year in the life of a mother living and working in the Chattanooga area, and it led me to the conclusion that our communities have social obligations to the working poor—people who provide essential services to families of all classes—in the face of huge financial obstacles.

What can go wrong will go wrong

Thirty-year-old single mother Katrina Gilbert takes two of her three children to Chambliss Center so that she can work long, hard hours as a certified nursing assistant, at $9.50 an hour. In Katrina’s world, anything that can go wrong does go wrong. She married young, with the dream of having a family and buying a home. That dream went sideways when her husband became addicted to painkillers and lost the family’s income. To keep her family afloat, Katrina moved with her three children into a trailer. Her husband moved home to Alabama to live with his mother.

In the documentary you see Katrina make a tremendous effort to keep the kids and their dad connected, regularly driving them to Alabama for visits and encouraging him to find work near the children. Periodically Katrina loses her food stamps, and she must choose between getting much-needed medical care for herself, feeding her children, and paying the legal fees for divorce. Eventually she gives her trailer to the children’s dad and moves in with her boyfriend, a cheerful working man who also has several children and problems of his own. She is accepted into a college program only to be denied scholarship money, making furthering her education impossible.

Despite these and other setbacks, Katrina remains positive, sure that everything will work out. She’s a loving (if sometimes overwhelmed) mother and a devoted caregiver to the elderly residents of the nursing home where she works.

We’re all related

Anyone who has family responsibilities can relate to Katrina. She isn’t some layabout: She works hard and she loves her patients and her children. She has meaningful personal relationships—some that flounder and others that bring her joy.

Tribulations like Katrina’s are not limited to the poor. After viewing the film, a friend in the class talked with me about it. “Sound familiar?” I asked, knowing that she and I had a shared history of single motherhood, and she quickly nodded. We both related to the sorrow the children feel when Dad is not a constant presence in their lives, the panic when a child gets sick and you have no backup plan for daycare, the anxious maneuvering for summer care, the confusion over how to respond when the children blame Mom for Dad’s absence. Because of education, my friend and I had more choices than Katrina, but I’m not sure I made my choices with Katrina’s equanimity.

Focus on hope

Our connection with Katrina is the thing that Slate.com pushes back on, calling Katrina “the most sympathetic poor woman in America” and pointing out that Shriver hand-picked Katrina because she is so easy to empathize with. As Shriver herself says in an interview with Atlantic Monthly, “everyone in this story is trying.” Slate.com points out there are a lot of people who make bad decisions, and they need help too. Would we empathize with a less likeable woman whose poor decisions resulted in addiction, illiteracy, homelessness, and utter hopelessness? Maybe not so much.

The question to ask, though, is why the film maker chose to focus on hope rather than hopelessness. If Maria Shriver has an ulterior motive, it is to show that there is a need for social change. Katrina just can’t make it alone, no matter how hopeful she feels or how hard she works. In the absence of family support, she needs the support of her community.

In interviews Shriver suggests solutions: Our communities should encourage women to go to school, vote on women’s issues, and mentor other women. Women should partner with men to exert economic power by making spending decisions that support companies whose employees receive fair wages, family sick leave, and benefits. Those who can donate time and money should support nonprofits—like Chambliss Center—that do what they can to shore up the working poor in America.


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