Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Moralization of an $80 Haircut

On Monday, HBO released Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert, which you can watch in its entirety here (HT Duane).  It is a very important documentary and one that I hope we can incorporate into our discussion of what it means to be poor in America; what it means to work 7 days a week in a low wage job; and what it means to live without health insurance.

Katrina Gilbert makes approximately $9.50/hour.  By the end of the hour and 15 minutes, she received a raise, one that I will not "spoil" for future viewers, but I will say the amount elicited groans from both my wife and I when we watched (and is still stuck in my head).

Ms. Gilbert is as complex as any other human being.  She's clearly made some mistakes in her personal and professional life.  So have we.  But what I expect will stand out for most viewers is an $80 haircut.

After receiving her tax refund from H&R Block, Ms. Gilbert tells the audience that she will pay off some credit and catch up on receiving medical attention for some nagging complaints, including a three week migraine headache.  She has a thyroid problem that went unaddressed due to the financial strain of raising three children.  Viewers watch her go through what appear to be a series of physical examinations before being confronted by a bill for medication that is double what she anticipated (approximately $300 instead of $150).  Ms. Gilbert has to pick and choose which medications she will take in the same way you and I may select clothes.

But the very next scene is the subject in a hair salon.  She explains that it is her birthday and she wanted to do something nice for herself.  The viewers watch as she receives an $80 haircut, with the amount due conspicuously announced at the end.  (Note: for most of this scene, I was telling my wife that the hairdresser was giving her the haircut as a gift, so my interpretation of this scene is complicated by being wrong in an intra-marital dispute [common]).

Your acceptance and interpretation of that scene will determine your opinion on this movie.  In fact, I would project that it determines your opinion on American poverty in general (i.e., drug testing for food stamps, etc., etc.).  For some, the $80 expenditure was a breach in the social contract between the poor and a society that provides government programs to assist individuals in poverty.  A blatant disqualification.

That's what makes this movie good.  It's not propaganda.  It has a point to make, but the point is in context.

While in the flow of the film, I was jarred by the $80 haircut, later reflection has made me think 1) its none of my business, and 2) good for her.  We all say carpe diem until we're in a position to judge.  Based entirely on personal experience working with those in poverty, I can tell you that stress is a driver of their condition.  Stress impairs your performance at work, makes you forget things (often important), deteriorates your health, and precludes thinking about the future.  Taking a break, even an expensive one, is not frivolous.

I also hope we can get over the idea that because you are poor, your life needs correction.  I've said that many times in this space before.  The moralization of poverty is cancerous.  This is yet another debate of context and semantics won by the opponents of social progress, but it's an old tune.  Demonize the beneficiaries and you can destroy the cause.  This construct will have some viewers pay more attention to the $80 haircut than the day one of the Gilbert children is sick and Katrina needs to miss a day of work to care for them.  How much do you think that cost a low wage hourly worker?  My guess would be approximately $80.

The reason our government is able to pass legislation cutting food stamps while continuing millions of dollars in farm subsidies is because of $80 haircuts.  Listen to the rhetoric: cell phones, gold teeth, "baby momma", Cadillac.  Someone is hitting the ugly buttons on your reptile brain.

That's all for today.  Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!