'Paycheck to Paycheck': Maria Shriver's 'living, breathing document' of poverty

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Maria Shriver may not be a television news regular these days, but her interest in the world around her hasn't lessened.

The NBC News special correspondent and former California first lady likely would contend it only has increased, given her role in such initiatives as "The Alzheimer's Project" -- the award-winning HBO documentary largely inspired by the experience of Shriver's late father, politician and activist Sargent Shriver, with the disease -- and her recently issued Shriver Report subtitled "A Woman's Nation Pushes Back From the Brink," about women and children living on the poverty line in modern America.

Related to the report is "Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life & Times of Katrina Gilbert," a documentary Shriver executive produced for HBO, where it debuts Monday, March 17 (and then will be offered free for the next week at HBO.com, ShriverReport.org and YouTube.com). It follows a single mother of three in Chattanooga, Tenn., as she tries to provide for herself and her young children as a nursing assistant while trying to better her situation.

In an interview for this article, Shriver talked about the effect she wants the program to have not only on viewers, but on legislators who can impact the issues it addresses.

Zap2it: Are you happy with the documentary?

Maria Shriver: First, I'm really happy that HBO wanted to partner on the subject. I think Katrina's story exemplifies all the issues we talked about in the report, so you see a real life that all the poll numbers and graphs depict. You see what happens when someone is trying to live off the paycheck they're working hard for, and they can't make ends meet.

When they want to go back to school, what happens? When they want to have the father involved in their children's lives, what happens? You also see how hard it is to be economically mature, and I feel good that the film presents a look at an issue as it comes together.

Zap2it: How did you discover Katrina?

Maria Shriver: We took a long time with HBO deciding whether this was going to follow one person or several people. We also looked at other states, then one of our Shriver Report partners suggested the Chambliss Center. What's unique about it is that it's a 24-hour day care center, and you see so few of those in this country. And what's interesting is that so many people work night jobs; where do they go for child care?

We looked at several people, and the filmmakers felt Katrina was the best example of everything the report covered - women who started out in relationships and never thought they'd end up as single mothers do; they're trying to keep a job, and they're trying to balance services with a certain amount of the money.

Zap2it: Katrina seems very unaffected discussing her experiences in front of the cameras. How much of a bonus did you find that?

Maria Shriver: What we tried to do was to change the image of these women who are "living on the brink." They're not sitting around eating candy. These are people who didn't expect to be in the situation they're in, and who may need support, but they don't want to stay on the brink. Katrina wants to get an education and lift herself up, and you see how hard that is for her to do.

I think this speaks very well to the issues the 42 million women we represent in the report are trying to talk about, and they're complicated. My hope is that people will share their stories if they watch this film with their families or in gatherings across the country. There's a lot that can be done, but there's not one area that will be the "silver bullet."

Zap2it: Did you always intend the telecast of the documentary to coincide with the publication of the related Shriver Report study?

Maria Shriver: Yes. I wanted the film to be a living, breathing document that would come alive, more than a policy report. I wanted the photojournalism to show you a different face of economic insecurity. It's going to be shown in classrooms, in gender-study classes and psychology classes, and I think it's really good that (the issues are) being debated by Democrats and Republicans.

Zap2it: You mention gender, and we see in the documentary that Katrina's boyfriend is in a similar economic plight. Had you intended to make that point also?

Maria Shriver: The issues she's dealing with are issues that affect men as well. They are taking care of parents now, and they also need child care and living wages. What's good for Katrina is also good for her ex-husband, it's good for her children, it's good for the community ... that's what I'm also trying to show. These are family issues and American issues, the story of millions and millions of Americans.

I think it's easy to turn away when you don't see someone or know someone affected by it. Once you've met Katrina, I don't think you'll be able to see people living paycheck to paycheck and not think about her. The documentary is a good way for the report to come alive - and I think that's what all these issues need to do, to come alive, so that policymakers can find common ground on them.
Photo/Video credit: HBO