Waging a Living (2005) Poster

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Taking a longer look at lives
maisannes28 February 2006
Waging a Living looks at the lives of several people who feel that it is difficult for themselves to get ahead or pay the bills even though they have full-time employment. A waitress, security guard, CNA and an elder care activity leader face the challenges of rising costs of living, raising dependent children, social services regulations and just plain life.

The documentary's strongest asset is that instead of the snapshots usually seen on the nightly news, these people are followed for several years so we can see the steady stream of immediate problems along with the slower solutions such as education, unionization and patient persistence.

Watching the movie filled me with a combination of gratitude for my own circumstances and insecurity from knowing that I am not too far away from living paycheck to paycheck myself.

My only concern about the film is that it is imbalanced by focusing on the external causes of their conditions but does not point out as much what choices these people made in the past to place themselves in these positions. For instance, we are not told why one person lost his job, or why disability claims were not taken earlier, or why they have so many children and so on. Then again, perhaps the filmmakers thought that "blaming the victim" was unwarranted.

Lastly, two of the four people are members of the same union, even though they live on different coasts, and are both shown as active union members. I wonder how these people came to be chosen for the documentary, and if their union somehow was involved in the making of the film.
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striking reality
"Waging a Living" tells four inter-cut stories of strife and struggle from the streets of America, as it examines the many nuances of being part of the growing population of 'working poor'. Each story becomes more eye-opening than the last, as we get to intimately know the four people the film spotlights. Overall the film shows a faulty system rife with one catch-22 situation after another, where attempts to move away from poverty only prove to create a new type of poverty.

The DVD of "Waging a Living" contains a short film called "Rosevelt's America" that feels less like a companion piece and more like a missing storyline from the film, and does not have its own reference on IMDb. It was made by the same filmmakers as "Waging a Living", and it follows a good natured Liberian refugee who also struggles from paycheck to paycheck, but sees the U.S. system with an outsider's optimistic perspective, full of hope and promise. On the other hand "Waging a Living" offers a far gloomier picture, so in a matter of speaking if they are taken together a much broader scope of the situation is revealed.
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A necessary humanization
Steve Pulaski3 February 2015
Waging a Living is a necessary humanization for a demographic often shortchanged to buzzwords or percentages in a political speech. We constantly hear many Americans are living "paycheck to paycheck" or "x" amount of people are below the poverty line, but here we see four case examples of those kinds of people and learn their struggle. Films, and documentaries especially, were once referred to by film critic Roger Ebert as "empathy machines" and Waging a Living churns out empathy, sympathy, and insight in mass amounts.

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.
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thought provoking
JayRodNU26 February 2006
I found this to be a fairly even handed approach to the topic. (I suppose in reality this is difficult to gauge - not knowing how much footage was not used.) I do think there was a bit of emotional sensationalism employed early on in the movie. Yet over all I felt the director did an adequate job letting the people and their situations speak for themselves. By simply presenting these real life people and their struggles - without trying to judge or preach or even suggest solutions - it was left for the audience to be moved. And ultimately, this film stirred my heart. True, we often like to have problems packaged and solutions laid out before us - but this problem certainly has no easy answers. Thus I appreciated the director's decision to merely attempt to bring awareness to the ever growing disparity between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots'. It is unquestionably tragic that so many Americans (and people all over the world for that matter) can be driven, hard working people, and yet struggle to provide the basic necessities for their loved ones. This documentary reminded me how richly God has blessed me and how great a responsibility it is to share that blessing with as many people as possible. I hope many people will see this film.
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