Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Sitting on the Fence of Poverty

Chasing the fabled-American Dream is a nightmare for many workers.
PBS has a new documentary about the working poor. The stories put a new spin on Reality TV. Some real-life profiles are below.

Here is the release material they sent to me:


By Roger Weisberg (the film maker)

"Summary: The term working poor should be an oxymoron. If you work full time, you should not be poor, but more than 30 million Americans — one in four workers — are stuck in jobs that do not pay for the basics of a decent life.

Waging a Living chronicles the day-to-day battles of four low-wage earners fighting to lift their families out of poverty. Shot over a three-year period in the Northeast and California, this observational documentary captures the dreams, frustrations and accomplishments of a diverse group of people who struggle to live from paycheck to paycheck.

National Air Date: Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2006 at 10:00 p.m. on PBS. (Check local listings.)

People in the film:

Mary Venettelli, Cream Ridge, N.J.

Mary Venittelli is a 45-year-old single mother of three living in southern New Jersey. She led a very comfortable middle-class life until she started going through a bitter divorce. When Mary enters the workforce to support her family, the only job she finds in her rural community is a waitress position, paying $2.13 per hour plus tips. Her evening schedule at the restaurant forces Mary to hire babysitters that she can’t afford and puts enormous stress on her children.

Mary relies on local food pantries for emergency food, borrows money from friends, and runs up $15,000 in credit card debt to pay her household bills.

She loses her car and is afraid she will lose her house. Ultimately, her divorce settlement stabilizes her financial predicament, but she realizes that her future is not secure. Mary returns to school to acquire new computer skills and begins to build a new life for her family.

Jerry Longoria, San Francisco

Jerry Longoria is a 45-year-old security guard whose $12 per hour job barely covers his modest living expenses and his rent in a single room occupancy hotel in a blighted neighborhood in San Francisco. Five years ago, Jerry was homeless and fighting a losing battle with alcoholism. Today, he is sober and manages to send his children regular child support payments.

Jerry's real passion is his work for his union. He leads rallies, speaks at city council meetings, and helps organize a successful campaign to improve wages and benefits for security guards. His biggest goal is to visit his two children whom he hasn’t seen in nine years.

Eventually, he is able to save enough to make an emotional journey to North Carolina, but shortly after he returns, he has a disagreement with his boss and is fired. With the help of his union, Jerry finds a new job, but it pays 20% less than his old one. Jerry worries that it will take him years to advance to his previous salary and that his plans for future reunions with his children will have to be put on hold.

Barbara Brooks, Long Island, New York

Barbara Brooks is a 40-year-old single mother of five living in Freeport, N.Y. She grew up abused and impoverished but is determined to break the cycle of domestic violence and poverty. Barbara struggles to balance her responsibilities as a full-time college student, worker, and mother.

She makes $8.25 per hour as a counselor at a juvenile detention facility, but her earnings are insufficient to make ends meet. To supplement her wages Barbara receives a range of government benefits including Medicaid, food stamps, child-care assistance, utility assistance, and subsidized Section 8 housing.

Barbara eventually receives a raise to $11 per hour, but her increased earnings make her ineligible for most government benefits. She calculates that by earning an additional $450 a month, she loses almost $600 a month in government aid. “I’m hustling backwards,” she says.

Barbara is convinced that the only way to become self-sufficient is to get a college degree. When she earns her associate’s degree, she finds a job as a recreational therapist at a nearby nursing home that pays $15 per hour.

She loves her new job with its professional status, increased earnings, and full medical benefits, but quickly discovers that she is again going backwards when her remaining government benefits are eliminated. With a heavy heart, Barbara resorts to working part-time so that her benefits can be restored while she completes her college education.

Jean Reynolds, Keansburg, N.J.

Jean Reynolds is a 55-year-old certified nursing assistant in Keansburg, N.J., who is supporting her three children and two grandchildren. She leads her union’s successful struggle to increase wages, but since she’s been at the same job for over 15 years, she earns the maximum wage of $11 per hour and does not qualify for a salary increase.

Jean's oldest daughter has cancer and Jean struggles to pay her medical bills along with the other household expenses. When Jean takes emergency custody of two more grandchildren, her wages cannot stretch to cover the needs of her family of eight. She falls behind on her bills and is evicted from her home.

As the family faces the prospect of living in homeless shelters, Jean reluctantly turns to public assistance. Although the authorities have consistently rejected her applications in the past, they discover that Jean’s sick daughter now qualifies for help. With emergency public assistance, Jean manages to find a place for her family to live but still struggles to make ends meet. Ultimately, Jean feels trapped in a dead-end job and cheated out of the American Dream.

:“In making Waging a Living, I wanted viewers to understand what it’s like to work hard, play by the rules, and still not be able to support a family,” says producer/director Roger Weisberg.

“It’s easy to take for granted the janitors and security guards in the offices where we work, the waiters and bus boys in the restaurants where we eat, and the nurses and care-givers in the facilities where we place our children and elderly.

“ I wanted to bring viewers inside the daily grind of the nameless people we encounter every day who struggle to survive from paycheck to paycheck. My goal was to get people to take a new look at the prevailing American myth that hard work alone can overcome poverty."

On The Waging a Living companion Web site: offers exclusive streaming video clips from the film, a podcast version of the filmmaker interview and a wealth of additional resources, including a Q&A with filmmaker Roger Weisberg, ample opportunities for viewers to “talk back” and talk to each other about the film, and the following special features:

• Exclusive podcast series: Tune in to pov.org during the month of August for downloadable conversations about the struggles of low-wage earners in America. Participants include New York Times writer Nina Bernstein, Nickel and Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich, filmmaker Roger Weisberg, and more guests to be announced shortly.


Sally Parrott Ashbrook said...

Wow, those are powerful stories. That gave me goosebumps. Those are the types of families I hear from on a regular--sometimes daily--basis. Something has gone wrong in our country when two people at minimum wage don't even make a living wage combined.

Frugal Duchess: Sharon Harvey Rosenberg said...

I felt the same way when I read
Nickel and Dimed by author Barbara Ehrenreich.

It's scary to think that so many people are only a few paychecks away from disaster.

Anonymous said...

Why Why Why Is it not amazing how our government can come up with a billion dollars a week for war. Yet deny a mother food stamps who is trying to work and further her education. According to the Bible if you don't take care of your own. Your worse then an infidel. I think America is an infidel. Let's start taking care of our own country.