We focus on four individuals: Jean Reynolds, a nursing assistant, who is rallying for higher wages at her job, claiming she isn't underpaid for allegedly doing "the work of God," Jerry Longoria, a security guard for an enormous high-rise who lives in a one-room apartment, Mary Venittelli, a waitress from San Francisco earning a meager $2.13 an hour plus tips at her job, while going through a messy divorce and juggling several young children, and Barbara Brooks, a child care supervisor looking to obtain higher education in order to make more money. The film intertwines their stories by showing their constant struggle to get by, and the demoralizing attitudes that come with being "working poor." The film, for starters, isn't entirely bent on empty statistics and sticks to profiling four subjects who are trying to make a living off of minimum wage. Right off the bat, even if we know and hear about the struggles of a minimum wage earner, seeing men, women, mothers, and fathers struggle to support themselves and their children is a difficult sight to witness. It's also incredibly aggravating to see these hard-working individuals talk about how they've grown up with the notion that hard work will equal success over time, but all they've seen in their lives is hard work with menial payoff. All these subjects are so depressingly close to losing everything that it's demoralizing for them to be seen doing something like shopping for clothes at a goodwill in their same county or cutting back on their necessities to assure their monthly budget isn't extended.
The minimum wage debate is one I see from both sides. On one hand, there's the human side that kicks in and stirs the emotional pot of feelings when one sees so many people struggling to make it on a wage not adequately sustained and raised with rising inflation and the cost of resources. On the other, there's the question of economic consequences of raising the minimum wage, where prices of goods and services could rise and employees' hours could be cut to levels below full-time employment. These secondary consequences shouldn't be ignored, and generally aren't, but it makes the debate of raising the minimum wage that much more difficult.
One thing I can say, however, is that if you're working full-time at a job and you still qualify for food stamps and sit below the poverty line, the system is deeply flawed. Right there, you are diminishing the motivation and interest for someone to have a job in the first place; what's the point of working, overusing my body, and causing myself mental and physical strain when my labor isn't valuable enough to take me out of poverty? My grandmother and I have constantly fought about this issue, with her making the conventional argument that going back to school to gain higher education is what that person should do.
As stated, we see one subject in Waging a Living attempt to do that, struggling to keep her hours at a manageable level at work and attend classes. The fact of the matter is higher education is grossly expensive for middle/upper-middle class teenagers, who's parents likely had to save money since their kids' childhood in order to pay for it. Imagine not just the financial strain but the impossibility of someone who is living paycheck-to-paycheck trying to pay for higher education in order to optimistically lift themselves out of poverty. And what if they still can't find a high-paying job by the time they graduate? Now they're still stuck at the same miserable job and have incurred massive debt.
Waging a Living doesn't offer any kind of solution, but it notes what a cyclical problem this is. It's an issue that circumvents back and forth, with nearly every solution or attempted resolution imposed by the subjects of the film being met with either more problems or no clean remedy to their immediate conflict. It's a tough issue and the documentary's purpose is to show us that it indeed is, and has the ability to provide someone with a narrow, oversimplified view of people in poverty and minimum wage earners with a sense of necessary enlightenment.
Directed by: Roger Weisberg, Pamela Harris, Frances Reid, and Edward Rosenstein.