After watching this documentary about low-wage workers, Judge Jennifer Malkowski no longer feels oppressed by not being able to afford TiVo.
"I was brought up to believe in the American Dream: you work hard and you'll be successful. I've worked hard my whole life and I'm still stuck. Things have changed somewhere along the line and I feel cheated out of the American Dream…there's no American Dream anymore."—Jean Reynolds
In this aptly titled, heartbreaking documentary, earning a "living wage" really is like waging a war for four hard-working Americans. But the enemy combatants here are numerous and nebulous, and the battle strategy we've all been taught in this country—that hard work and determination will earn you a slice of the American Dream—proves hopelessly ineffective.
Facts of the Case
Waging a Living follows four Americans over a period of three years:
Jean Reynolds works at a nursing home in New Jersey earning $11 per hour after 14 years on the job. She is a single mom taking care of her own kids and a few grandkids. Her adult daughter had thyroid cancer and no insurance.
Jerry Longoria is a former alcoholic living in high-rent San Francisco and making $12 per hour as a security guard. He has two teenage children in North Carolina who he hasn't seen in nine years.
Mary Venittelli is going through an expensive divorce, raising her three young kids, and coping with $15,000 worth of credit-card debt. She works as a waitress in New Jersey.
Barbara Brooks lives in New York and makes $8.25 per hour working at the same home for troubled kids where she lived and was sexually abused as a teenager. Getting help from a number of government programs, she attempts to be a full-time worker, full-time student, and full-time mother.
Waging a Living is a film that is full of surprises, the first of which is that the "working poor" featured here are not making minimum wage slinging burgers at McDonald's. All of these individuals are experienced, personable employees and all are making significantly above minimum wage. Jean has 14 years of experience, Jerry wears a suit and tie to work in an expensive high-rise, and Jean and Barbara are providing desperately needed care to troubled kids and nursing home patients. As Jean laments, "I'm handling human beings and I'm being paid less than garbage men. And it hurts to know that's how much value society places on me and the people in my care." Barbara, making significantly less, regrets having to leave a meaningful job just to make ends meet for her family. This aspect of the film is deeply disconcerting, as it implies that not only does our society shamefully undervalue workers in these professions, but also that if surviving is this hard for people making $11 per hour, it must be that much worse for the folks who are slinging burgers at McDonald's for minimum wage. Jean really brings this theme to the forefront when she says, "People in Social Services tend to think, 'Well, if you would get up off your lazy butt, then you wouldn't have to worry about getting help from the government.' I'm not lazy. I work every day of my life."
The second big surprise in Waging a Living is that after tolerating all the hardship and disappointment and exhaustion of eking out a living, these people somehow find the energy to give back to their communities and their co-workers with volunteer work and activism. Jerry and Jean are both active union members, attending and speaking at protests and demonstrations. Jerry even volunteers eight to ten hours per week and hands out dollar bills to the homeless folks he knows by name on the street. And each of the four demonstrates limitless energy and kindness on the job.
Perhaps the most upsetting aspect of Waging a Living is not the emptied bank accounts but the broken dreams. For Mary, disbelief and a "how did I get here?" mentality are prominent. Forced to get Christmas presents for her kids from a charity food bank, she marvels: "I just never thought I would be the type of person that would have to use a food bank. I was one of those women that donated to people like me. That's the truth." Things get so bad for her that when a friend warns her against putting her Social Security number on a credit-card application, she bitterly jokes, "What are they gonna do, steal my identity? Please do." Barbara is convinced that education will fulfill her dreams, but slow going becomes moving backwards when she starts to get raises that disqualify her for some of the welfare benefits she has been receiving. As her paycheck goes up, the portion of her rent she has to pay goes up even more. After she loses Medicaid, she can't even afford to get medicine to relieve her son's labored breathing. She despairs, "I'm hustling backwards. The harder I work, the harder it gets. And this is not what I expected. I expected that the harder I work, the more motivated I'd be because I'd be getting closer to my goal. But the harder I work, the harder it gets." Echoing that sentiment, Jean says simply and devastatingly, "I always thought I could do everything. And I found out that I can't."
Filmmaker Roger Weisberg elegantly ties these individual stories to general problems for low-wage workers in America. There is no intrusive narration in the film, but Weisberg chooses some especially thought-provoking moments to display relevant statistics at the bottom of the screen. While Mary is reaching a breaking point with her debt, Weisberg inserts a subtitle: "In the year following a divorce, a man's standard of living rises 10%; a woman's standard of living drops 27%." When Jerry loses a job and gets a new one that pays less, the screen reads: "Real pay for male low-wage workers is less than it was 30 years ago." Weisberg uses just the right number and kind of statistics, not cluttering the film, but giving us some actual, hard-hitting data to underscore these powerful personal stories. His efficient, newspaper-style opening sequence demonstrates this effective mixing of the personal and the political, inserting his four characters into "articles" about American labor and poverty.
Unfortunately, Weisberg's obvious talent and compassion is not too well presented in the disc's supplemental material. Rather than a commentary track, we are given a very long, bland interview. Weisberg speaks intelligently about his work and has a warm demeanor, but he cannot sustain 35 minutes of talking against a black background. He reveals some interesting details about the film, including the fact that he began with 12 participants and narrowed it down to four in the editing process. The other main special feature is an excellent 26-minute documentary short called Rosevelt's America, which might be edited together from one of the other eight stories Weisberg ultimately dropped from Waging a Living. The film features Rosevelt, a refugee from Liberia who is playing the role of working single dad until his wife can get permission to come to America, too. By turns heartbreaking and heartwarming, this extra is a just as good as the disc's feature film. Picture quality is typical for this level of digital video documentary, and the sound quality renders most of the dialogue pleasantly comprehensible.
In his on-disc interview, Weisberg distills the message of this documentary eloquently: "The word 'working poor' ought to be an oxymoron. The idea that you can work full time and still be poor in this society is a real crime." As he often does in the film itself, he supports this impassioned statement with hard facts: 30 million Americans work full time and still can't support their families. Hopefully, some policy makers will be influenced by his sensitive portrait of four hard-working Americans "waging a living."
Guilty of some much needed muckraking in the fight for higher wages for working-class Americans.
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• Short Film Rosevelt's America
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