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Q&A: Katrina Gilbert talks living 'Paycheck to Paycheck'

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The new documentary "Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert" uses the story of one 30-year-old single mother in Chattanooga, Tenn., to shed light on the struggles faced by the estimated 42 million American women living at or near the poverty level. 

Gilbert, whose 10-year marriage fell apart when her husband developed a painkiller addiction, makes $9.49 an hour as a nursing assistant at an extended-care facility. Despite long hours of physically and emotionally exhausting work, she barely takes home enough to support her three children.

Over the course of a year, filmmakers Shari Cookson and Nick Doob follow Gilbert as she weathers one storm after another: deciding whether to pay for medication to treat her thyroid condition or to alleviate her chronic migraine headaches; getting accepted to college only to find out she doesn't qualify for financial assistance; losing food stamp benefits. 

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"A roof over our heads with heat, that's all I can do," she says at one point in the documentary. 

Produced by Maria Shriver, "Paycheck to Paycheck" premieres Monday on HBO and will be available to stream for free for the next week on HBO.com, YouTube and ShriverReport.org. We talked to Gilbert, who'd just returned home after a busy round of promotions in New York to make it to work on Monday, about her experiences.

How'd you get involved with the film? 

It evolved through Chambliss Children’s Center [where Gilbert's children are in preschool]. They had a sign up saying that HBO was there doing a documentary and they had asked me if I would be interested in sitting down and talking with them. At first I was kind of hesitant about it. And then I just talked to some of the workers at the center and just decided to go ahead and do it, just to share my story.

What convinced you to participate?

I thought that it needed to be said. The struggles that I’ve been through and the struggles single moms go through, the challenges I’ve had and what I’ve overcome. I just thought it would be a good thing.

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Did you think of yourself as someone on the brink?

Oh yeah, I knew I was, that’s why I would be working 16-hour days. Pick up my off days so I’d be working 16 days straight just to make sure that I had money for the bills and what we needed. There are lots of other women that I work with, they do the same thing, they work 16 hours on the weekends.

Has being part of the documentary changed your perspective on anything?

After I watched it for the first time, I was just taken aback for a minute. I was like, wow, that’s really my life. I guess living it you just don’t really see it. When you’re on the outside looking in, and you see it like that, it’s just a shock.

Anything in particular that struck you?

Just how hardworking I was and I’ve overcome so much. I would think sometimes in my mind that I’m not a good mom but after watching that I can say I am a good mom.

Do you think there are misunderstandings or misconceptions about people like you who are working and struggling to make ends meet?

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I think sometimes people might think that we don’t work as hard as we could but that’s not the case. Working as much as I can, as many shifts as I can pick up, there are some misconceptions about it. I try to do all I can do to make that extra money, to make sure the bills get paid.

Watching the film, you get the sense that any unexpected disruption could throw off your precarious financial situation. Is there any one thing you worry about more than others? 

The car breaking down and the kids being sick, or if I get sick. That’s a missed day of work. They’ve gotten a little strict on our missed days so sometimes I’m going into work sick. If the kids are sick, they have to be out of school and that’s me missing work. That’s the one thing that gets me.

How do you think being a woman affects your situation?

I think it’s been said, some men make more than women. I know that in particular, at my fiance’s work that there’s a woman who’s worked there for years and he makes more than her. I think it’s like that in a lot of places, a lot of people that I’ve talked to have said similar things.

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Tell me about what’s happened in your life since the film. You were just awarded a scholarship to Chattanooga State. Any plans yet for school? 

I’m looking into what exactly I want to get a degree in. I also got engaged, and we’re just happy and looking forward to the future. I’m looking forward to getting my stability and hopefully getting a better job.

In the film, you have no health insurance and you get cut off of food stamps. Have your circumstances changed at all?

The only thing is that I did get insurance through the Obamacare marketplace. I don’t pay for a doctor’s visit or anything like that, it’s just the prescription cost of $1.50. Food stamps I still haven’t got.

What do you think politicians can do to help people in your situation? 

I think that raising the minimum wage, and like Maria says, sick days would be great. If we could get sick days, that would be great.

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How have your friends and family reacted to "Paycheck to Paycheck"? 

My kids have seen it a few times. The last time in New York the kids were like, "Again, mom?" My family saw it at the Chattanooga premiere. They were just proud of me. My dad was boo-hooing. They were proud and excited for me. Some of my co-workers were like, I didn’t realize how hard you had it and how much you were struggling. 

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