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Maria Shriver puts a human face on the working poor in HBO film

Maria Shriver's 'Paycheck to Paycheck' highlights the millions of American women struggling to stay above the poverty line. She discusses poverty in the U.S. and possible solutions.

By Yvonne Villarreal

7:30 AM CDT, March 17, 2014

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Veteran journalist and former California First Lady Maria Shriver is out to put a human face on Americans struggling to stay above the poverty line.

In her new HBO documentary, "Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert," Shriver focuses on a 30-year-old single mother of three who earns less than $10 an hour as a nursing assistant in Chattanooga, Tenn. The work, which premieres Monday, is meant to highlight the struggles of an estimated 42 million women and 28 million children who are living in or are on the brink of poverty.

The documentary can also be viewed for free on HBO.com, shriverreport.org and YouTube through March 24.

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Below is an edited transcript of a conversation with Shriver.

It's 50 years since the War on Poverty, and there is still progress to be made. Talk about putting a face to the statistics.

People are meeting not a number but a woman. And they are, I think, looking at her and saying either, "That is me" or "That could be me" or "That's someone I know" and like "What can I do to help her?"

There are a lot of staggering statistics. Which of the figures caused you the most pause?

I think that one in three working women in the United States is on the brink of poverty figure. That's sobering because we've heard so much in the last few years about women breaking the glass ceiling and women being in power, while the vast majority of women are doing it all and barely hanging on.

We see in the film that every time Katrina gets ahead, something else comes up that sets her back. You're a mother of four yourself but someone who lives a comfortable lifestyle — was it hard to feel connected to Katrina's plight?

Not at all. I felt totally connected to her. Meeting women and connecting to women like that is why I went into journalism. I wanted to originally produce documentaries. Then I went into the news business, and one thing led to another. But I've always been really interested in the everywoman, the everyman, the Main Street person, because to me, they are inspiring. I found [Katrina], to me anyway, to be inspiring.

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It's hard to watch this and not feel a sense of guilt, maybe even pity. What sort of reaction are you expecting?

I don't want people to watch this and feel guilty.... My hope is that this film will make young women think about the importance of education, think about the importance of financial literacy, think about the importance of their lives and the people they bring into this world.

And you make a point to stress that despite the focus on women in the report and film, this is not a story against men —

I'm the mother of two boys, and, you know, I like men. I find men that I talk to very open to trying to understand what the issues are that face women and saying over and over again that what is good for women is good for men. Men also need flexible hours. Men also need sick days. Men also are finding themselves in caregiving positions. Everybody's roles are changing. Women need to reach out to men. Both genders, I think, need to do a better job communicating. This is not an anti-men film. I'm very pro-men. I think men need to be brought in more. They need to be understood more. There's a lot of communication I think we can do between the genders. As I say to every young girl I meet, there's nobody on a white horse. Learn about money, get an education, understand that children are wonderful but they're expensive. I try to kind of say, "Get smart, young ladies. Get smart." Get your head out of the clouds. Young women spend a lot of time dreaming about their dress and their house and they don't even know who the guy is.

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Is there a workable solution?

I've very optimistic.... We have to look at these things as partnerships between the employer and the employee. Business is not the enemy either. I tried to make this a three-prong solution — government, individual and business — so it's not all just government. My father came out of a big government era and what I learned in being first lady is the power of public-private partnerships..... We have to keep educating, keep informing, keep inspiring and look at these always as it's not one person's responsibility to fix it. It's all of our responsibility. When I was in Washington, I met with [ Florida Sen.] Marco Rubio, I met with [Wisconsin Rep.] Paul Ryan — I try not to look at any of these sectors as the enemy. I don't see the Republicans as the enemy, I don't see businesses as the enemy. It's all one big peace table. Let's all sit down and look at where we can go. It's not going to be perfect, but that doesn't mean that we can't get there.

What do you say to those people who firmly believe that poverty is the fault of the individual, that it's a symptom of laziness or bad decision-making?

I'd say, "There but for the grace of God goes all of us."... I talk about creating a more compassionate, conscious and caring culture, and I think that starts frankly in each individual. It goes out into your home, it goes out into your business, and it goes out into your politics. Some people obviously don't believe that, don't want to hear it. We live in a country where everybody is entitled to their own opinion.... But I think anybody that has struggled in their own life — I haven't met anybody who hasn't — knows that there are times in every human being's life when they need help.

yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

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'Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life & Times of Katrina Gilbert'

Where: HBO

When: 9 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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