Film and TV

Shafted

First, the statistics: Between 1979 and 2000, the number of American workers living below the poverty line increased by 50 percent; today, one of every four workers earns less than the poverty level for a family of four. Then there's the widening gap between rich and poor over that same span: America's top 20 percent of wage earners enjoyed a 33 percent raise, whereas those earning in the bottom 20 percent suffered a 9 percent loss. In other words: America's working poor are getting shafted.

You won't find these statistics quoted in Waging a Living, an excellent documentary that introduces us to four people struggling with economic survival. The figures might be there, actually -- floating up the screen at a moving interlude and bringing the larger political picture to the personal stories unfolding before us -- but that's not what you'll remember when you leave the theater. Director Roger Weisberg (Sound and Fury), a veteran of 25 documentaries investigating social and political issues, knows better than to regale us with facts and figures issued by talking heads. Instead, he takes four relatable, articulate and eminently sympathetic workers struggling to make ends meet, follows them for three years and brings their stories to the screen. The result is riveting.

When we meet Jean Reynolds, a 51-year-old nursing assistant in Keansburg, New Jersey, she is supporting three children and two grandchildren. A warm and able woman, Reynolds cares for the residents at a nursing home with the same kindness she shows her family. After fourteen years on the job, she earns $11 an hour; despite her instrumental role in a union victory to increase wages, she receives no raise, because she's already at the maximum. During the course of the film, Jean takes on the care of two more grandchildren, ultimately mothering a brood of seven. Her oldest daughter has advanced thyroid cancer and no health insurance, so Jean struggles to pay the medical bills. (One month, the medicine alone costs $800.) The math is bleak: Nobody can support a family, let alone an extended family, on $20,000 a year.

Barbara Brooks is in similar straits. At 36, she is the single mother of five, somehow managing to work full-time and attend school while caring for her family. As a counselor at a juvenile detention center, she makes $8.25 an hour, which she supplements with any number of government assistance programs. But when Barbara earns her associate's degree and finds a job that pays a higher wage, she is cut off the rolls and once again can't pay her bills. ("We call it hustling backward," Barbara explains.) Ultimately, despite receiving a very positive performance review at a job she loves, Barbara must resort to working part-time so as to qualify for aid. Her plan, which she hopes will bring her out of the system once and for all, is to earn a bachelor's degree.

Waging a Living's other two protagonists, Jerry Longoria and Mary Venittelli, are equally stuck. As a security guard in San Francisco, Jerry has to live in a single-room occupancy hotel, sharing a bathroom with other residents and never earning enough to pay for airfare to North Carolina, where his children live. (He hasn't seen them for nine years.) Mary used to reside comfortably in the middle class, but a divorce catapulted her into poverty and into the workforce. She was qualified for little other than waitressing, a job in which her income depends largely on the whim of her supervisor, who often overbooks the staff and reduces Mary to serving fewer tables than she's able. Like many newly divorced women, Mary's quality of living shifts dramatically downward after her husband departs.

These are smart, funny and open people, keenly aware of their responsibilities and unable to meet them despite Herculean efforts. Witnessing their struggles can be excruciating. We want so badly for them to succeed, and often, as soon as they advance, they suffer a setback. One of Mary's sons begins to act out violently. Barbara takes in her grandchildren, increasing her household to nine. A dispute with his boss gets Jerry fired. Living on the edge, without the so-called safety net, any of these people can tip over into freefall with only the slightest provocation.

Deeply engaging, Waging a Living moves us back and forth among the subjects, sending us between coasts and further investing us in its subjects the more we learn. Our emotional connection with Jean, Barbara, Jerry and Mary transforms the phrase "working poor" from an abstraction to a label for real people enduring real hardship. Weisberg has infused a simple and straightforward film with immense compassion and riveting drama, and it's impossible not to want to help.

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Melissa Levine