Skip to main content
Valerie Young's picture

On Monday, March 17, you can watch The Shriver Report's new documentary "Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert" on HBO.  This film traces the daily frustrations of a single mother of three kids who works as a direct care aide in a nursing home.  While the film drills down into the details of Katrina's life, the point of the whole film is that 42 million women in the US are walking a high wire every day.  Working at low wage jobs, they put off their own needed health care or filling their prescriptions in favor of putting gas in the car or paying for child care.  Missing a day of work to stay home for a vomiting child is not an option.  There's no paid vacation, no health insurance, no workplace flexibility, and the raises in pay, when they come, are so small they make no difference in the stretched family budget.  It's not an easy film to watch, but it is a necessary film to watch, and to talk about.

But will the focus on Katrina and her family cause viewers to underestimate the extent of problems we are all facing.   There are many different issues involved, and they pertain to higher-wage workers and middle class families as well.   There isn't one household in America that is immune from the threat of sudden illness or injury, the need to earn a living, a care arrangement falling through, or unexpectedly losing a job.  Katrina's problems are every woman's problems.  They are family problems.  We'd be better off if we admitted that and saw them as the failures of public policy they are, rather than depict them as personal problems resulting from individual choice, which they are not.

Here are the Facts:

The gap in pay between mothers and non-mothers stems from time spent out of the workforce.  While women are bearing children, nurturing their growth and development, ensuring their survival and teaching them how to navigate the world (the essential work upon which society and our economy rely), they are losing their own value as workers and earners and will never recover financially.  Women with children pay a "motherhood penalty," as entrenched attitudes about mothers in the workplace push down their wages, depict them as less competent and committed, and cause them to be offered jobs less often and at lower starting salaries.   By some estimates, every woman can expect her earnings to fall about 5% for every child she has.  If she leaves the work force for one year to be with a new baby, The Shriver Report asserts that she has surrendered 20% of her lifetime earning power.

The weaknesses in our social structure became obvious as women entered the paid labor force.  No one was at home to deal with all the unpaid work of life, making meals, driving carpools, cleaning up, paying bills, and so forth.  With no paid family leave policy, most workers either don't have or can't afford to take any time off after birth or adoption, to recover from a serious injury, or care for an ill family member.  Of course the people who assume these obligations without the support of paid leave or paid sick days will be the losers economically.  Women face discrimination in the labor force, and hold most of minimum wage jobs.  Our lower earnings making it difficult to afford child care, which we must have if we are to work at all.  Nearly a quarter of all children in the US are living in poverty, the vast majority of them supported by single mothers like Katrina.

Increasing the minimum wage, putting women on a level playing field at work, making child care affordable, and keeping workers connected to employment even as they deal with sick kids, ill parents or new babies are national security policies, not "women's issues".  Paycheck to paycheck is no way to run a country.  Watch the movie, and let your legislators know that you won't elect t hem if they don't support raising the minimum wage, pay equity, expanding access to quality child care and pro-family policies in the workplace.

'Til next time,

Your (Wo)Man in Washington

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of strongly encourages our readers to post comments in response to blog posts. We value diversity of opinions and perspectives. Our goals for this space are to be educational, thought-provoking, and respectful. So we actively moderate comments and we reserve the right to edit or remove comments that undermine these goals. Thanks!