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By Melissa Boteach and Katie Wright

Last night, viewers across the country tuned in to watch the premier of the new HBO-produced documentary, “Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert.” The film, associated with Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress’s The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, follows Katrina Gilbert, a young single mother struggling to make ends meet, and will be available for streaming for free for one week at http://shriverreport.org/film/.

Katrina’s story was featured in the film, but the reality is that there are millions of Katrinas out there—women doing all they can to stay out of poverty and take care of their families. Today in America, 42 million women and 28 million children who depend on them live in poverty or on its brink. Despite the moral and economic challenges brought on poverty and economic insecurity, there are clear steps we can take to help Katrina, and us all, push back from the brink.

Raise the minimum wage

As we saw in the film, Katrina works at low wages, struggling to afford medical bills, gas, and other basic necessities for her family. Katrina is not alone. Too many Americans are working long hours for wages that are too low to support their families. The federal minimum wage is a poverty wage: $7.25 per hour, which is just $15,080 annually for a full-time worker and $4,000 below the poverty line for a family of three. Women in particular struggle to make ends meet, as two-thirds of all workers who are paid the minimum wage or less are women.

Congress is expected to consider minimum wage legislation this spring. The Fair Minimum Wage Act would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, which would help workers like Katrina boost their families’ bottom line. This increase would help 28 million American workers, including 15 million women, get by and lift nearly 1 million people out of poverty. It would also save $46 billion over 10 years in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which workers like Katrina rely on to put food on the table. When workers earn fair wages, they are less likely to need public assistance to make ends meet.

20 states already have wages that are higher than the federal minimum wage and advocates in many states are working to achieve state-level minimum wage increases.

Provide Paid Sick Days

When Katrina’s daughter gets sick, Katrina is faced with the lose-lose choice of sending her kids to daycare while sick or losing pay needed to meet that month’s bills. Unfortunately, nearly 40 percent of private-sector workers do not have a single paid sick day. Even worse, 71 percent of private-sector workers in low-wage jobs-which are disproportionately held by women—go without any paid sick days, presenting them with the kinds of impossible choices that Katrina faces in the documentary.

The Healthy Families Act, introduced in 2013, would enable workers to earn paid, job-protected sick days. It would ensure that workers in businesses with 15 or more employees are able to earn one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, up to seven days annually. There is growing momentum for this type of change on the state level as well. Connecticut has become the first state to adopt a law allowing a substantial share of workers to earn paid sick days, and major cities like New York City, San Francisco, and others have also taken steps to allow workers to accrue paid sick leave.

Ensure Access to Quality Preschool and Child Care

One of the heroes in the film, in addition to Katrina, are the staff of the Chambliss Center, a 24-hour daycare center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Katrina’s children are cared for while she works. Having this high-quality, reliable, and affordable day care is a cornerstone of Katrina’s efforts to push back from the brink and provide for her family. Phil Chambliss, the director of the center, makes clear that he could not provide such affordable rates without programs like Head Start and the subsidies he gets from the government. Katrina, however, is one of the lucky ones. Many families in poverty are paying up to 40% of their income for daycare and do not have access to high-quality pre-K programs.

President Obama’s Preschool for All initiative takes a historic step in the right direction. Preschool for All would create a new federal-state partnership to substantially expand the availability of high-quality preschool. States would be able to receive federal funding to extend preschool to all 4-year olds from low and moderate income families, and they would have financial incentives to expand access to middle-class families.

Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) has also introduced the Strong Start for America’s Children Act, with House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman George Miller (D-CA) introducing the companion legislation in the House. This legislation would authorize funding to states to provide universal, voluntary pre-kindergarten. Local entities including districts, schools and Head Start programs that meet high quality standards would be eligible for the funding.  Finally, increasing our investment in the Child Care and Development Fund, the primary source of federal funding for child care assistance for low- and moderate income families, would help parents work their way into the middle class.

Conclusion:

Raising the minimum wage, providing workers with access to paid sick days, and ensuring the available of quality early education and child care, would all help us push back from the brink. In addition, we can all take a cue from Katrina and make our stories known, by speaking out about the challenges facing women living on the brink and the solutions that help families make ends meet. Consider sharing your story with Our American Story, a project of Half in Ten and the Coalition on Human Needs. We hope to work with you to reduce poverty in America and stand with hard working families like Katrina’s.

For more information on the policies and statistics above, order your copy of The Shriver Report: A Women’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, by Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress.

Melissa Boteach is the Vice President of the Poverty to Prosperity Program and Half in Ten Education Fund at Center for American Progress. Katie Wright is a policy analyst with the Half in Ten Education Fund at Center for American Progress.


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