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"Paycheck to Paycheck" Highlights Value of Working-Family Tax Credit

By opening a window into the life of Katrina Gilbert, a working mother on the edge of poverty struggling to raise three children, HBO’s new documentary “Paycheck to Paycheck” touches on vital national issues like wages, health care, education, and food adequacy.  Here, though, let’s focus on what it shows about the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC).

These credits reward the work effort of low-wage workers.  And the film makes clear how hard Gilbert works.  A nurse’s assistant in a nursing home, she cares for frail elderly people who have limited mobility and varying degrees of cognitive ability.  A scene in which she helps lift a man into bed gives a glimpse of the job’s physically demanding nature, and her duties also include helping people dress, shower, and use the bathroom.

Despite the importance of her work to her elderly patients and their grown children, Gilbert doesn’t make much money:  $9.49 an hour or roughly $18,000 annually.  She works long hours, even 16-hour stretches at times.  Moreover, she gets no sick days, so when one of her children gets sick, it’s a potential work crisis.

Nor does she get benefits like health insurance, and she can’t afford coverage on her own — though it’s worth noting that, thanks to health reform, she later got coverage through one of the new insurance marketplaces.

With the income from her EITC and CTC, Gilbert can afford doctor visits for her neglected thyroid condition and migraines.  A birthday present for her children becomes a possibility.  And we see this woman, who spends her days bathing and cleaning others, get her hair done for her birthday.

There are millions of Katrina Gilberts across this country.  They work hard, for not much money, in nursing homes, retail stores, restaurants, and office buildings.  With limited resources, they’re especially vulnerable to crises such as a job loss or serious health problem.  The EITC and CTC help them make ends meet and build better lives for their families.

Chuck Marr
Vice President for Federal Tax Policy