Shot over a three-year period and exploring the demise of the American Dream, Roger Weisberg’s documentary about four minimum-wage workers follows their day-to-day struggles, accomplishments, and repeated setbacks. All four individuals — a nursing assistant, a security guard, a counselor at a juvenile detention home, and a suddenly divorced suburban mother who survives by waitressing — are just the sort of decent, honest, hard-working Americans George W. Bush and company profess to be championing. Weisberg follows the stories of all four workers over the same three-year period, and interweaves their narratives to highlight common themes, problems, and repeated setbacks.
Jean Reynolds, for example, works in a nursing facility in Keansburg, New Jersey and takes care of five children, three of her own and emergency custody of two grandchildren. After fifteen years on the same job she earns the maximum $11 per hour. As the cost of everything continues to go up, the buying power of her unchanging level of wages can only decrease. She cares for a chronically ill, live at home daughter. Her daughter may suffer from a rare form of cancer, but chronic illness itself is a common enough human condition, one to which America’s now privatized healthcare system is utterly unresponsive. Jean’s family ends up evicted and moves, twice. Wiesberg follows Jean as she seeks, and is repeatedly rejected by, the very public assistance programs which are allegedly designed to help people like her — in actual emergencies (as opposed to the oft vaunted "welfare queens," which the mass media relishes in demonizing).
The only, and only partially, saving grace occurs when the welfare system formally recognizes her daughter’s chronic illness — her daughter’s permanent disability becomes the contingency upon which a meager few more welfare dollars will be allotted the Reynolds family for housing. In the end, all the disruptions, the evictions, the promised support not manifesting, all culminate in Jean Reynolds realizing she is too old to retrain, that all of their hardships and jumping through hoops has only brought them back, roughly, to where they had started. At the end of Jean’s story the air is filled with the unspoken question: what happens to her and her family when the disabled (and very sick) daughter dies?
The stories of the other three working poor individuals take similar, at times terrifying turns. All four unfold in the same, relentlessly desperate direction. Any economic relief or improvement in their living conditions proves temporary. Even as security guard Jerry Longoria testifies that "the world doesn’t owe me a living, I must work for it," he is forced to acknowledge in reality the system is "designed to keep you down." When Barbara Brooks seemingly breaks out of the cycle of poverty by completing an associate’s degree (which leads directly to a better-paying job), she finds a big surprise. Every raise in pay causes a proportionately larger reduction in her government benefits. Worse than being trapped at the never-changing maximum wage level of her old work, now the more she earns by her own efforts the less she and her family have to live on. "I’m hustling backwards," as she capitulates. Barbara switches to part-time work, which allows her benefits to be increased, and gives her time to return to college to pursue a bachelor’s degree.
Jerry’s story takes the viewer most directly into the heart of union activism, demonstrating how disempowered trade unionism has become in the U.S. as well. The strength in Waging a Living lies in how it lets these individuals speak for themselves. Most powerfully, Waging a Living follows these individuals as they negotiate the facts of their real lives, as their illusions are shattered, over and over, and they begin to break loose from the hold of the scripted morality fables of the so-called "American Dream."
What director Weisberg leaves out of his documentary is to make explicit the connections between the circumstances of these individuals’ realities (and of the "working poor" in general) and the greater instruments of the power structures of American society which create and control those circumstances. The immense, invisible hands that manipulate the working poor (and everyone else in the lower 80% of the population) are not quite as impersonally god-like as they appear. The overarching story this documentary presents is powerfully done, alarming, and couldn’t be more timely. What is still missing is a film to tell the rest of this story.