The PBS documentary series "P.O.V." delivers its 10th film tonight with the sobering "Waging a Living."
Jerry Longoria lives in a single-room-occupancy hotel and works as a security officer in San Francisco. (Bill Burke/Page One Photography)
Social-issues filmmaker Roger Weisberg candidly captures the struggles of the "working poor" by profiling four Americans who work full time but remain in poverty. He blends these intimate stories with facts about poverty and wages in America, telling a straightforward story about a horrific hole in our social fabric.
Jean Reynolds, a 51-year-old nursing assistant in New Jersey, works the graveyard shift and brings home $11 per hour after 14 years on the job. Divorced and eventually caring for three children and four grandchildren, Reynolds must apply for public assistance.
Next we meet Jerry Longoria, a 42-year-old security guard in San Francisco whose $12 per hour job amounts to a $6.50 per hour job in the area. He's been off drugs and alcohol for four years and been living in a tiny hotel room for 10. He manages child support for his two children back in North Carolina but says, "One of my fears is being homeless."
Mary Venittelli is 41 and going through a divorce, which has put her back in the workforce. She makes $2.18 per hour plus tips as a waitress. But that's not enough to support her three children. She turns to a local food pantry while still racking up credit-card debt to pay for other necessities.
Lastly, we meet Barbara Brooks, a 36-year-old single mother of five in New York. She brings in $8.25 per hour working at the juvenile-detention facility where she once lived. She juggles work, children and classes for an associate's degree, believing an education is her ticket to financial freedom.
Weisberg lets these four stories represent how 30 million Americans deal with jobs that pay less than the federal poverty level for a family of four. He stacks his observational filmmaking style against stark figures like:
- In the year after a divorce, a man's income rises 10 percent and a woman's income falls 27 percent.
- Roughly 18,000 Americans die annually because they lack health insurance.
- Single mothers are five times more likely to be poor than mothers in dual-parent households.
- Housing costs have tripled since 1979, while real wages for male low-wage earners have decreased.
Weisberg and his crews followed the subjects for three years, during which time the income gap in America continued to widen. One of the results is a cycle of what Barbara Brooks terms "hustling backwards," wherein a worker might actually advance and get a pay raise, but the increased income means a loss of government benefits—without which a family still can't make ends meet.
In the film, when Brooks gets a raise from $8.25 to $11 per hour, the $450 monthly increase means she loses $600 in government aid. Good job performance ironically brings more hardship.
"It's sinful," says Jean Reynolds of the poverty that afflicts her and those like her. "God knows it's sinful." Reynolds says she is "ashamed" of her situation and demoralized by it. And when she lights a candle to St. Jude—patron saint of impossible causes—she says she feels God hasn't so much forgotten her as neglected her.
If it's true that we're God's hands and feet in the world, Reynolds may be right.
The strength of Weisberg's film lies in its constant reminder that every waitress, nurse, security guard or therapist you see may very well be struggling like some of the subjects in "Waging a Living."
Right now in America, a job doesn't mean a living.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
P.O.V.'s official Web site is here.
The P.O.V. "Waging a Living" Web site is here. (It includes a discussion guide and many more good materials.)
Read our reviews of other "P.O.V." documentaries:
"No More Tears Sisters"
"Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball"