A few years ago journalist Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book
that caused a lot of controversy: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America. In this book the author describes her time
working at various minimum wage jobs in different areas of the country
it was nearly impossible to survive.
When the book was released there were a lot of critiques, mainly
highly paid right wing pundits, who equated any mistake that Ehrenreich
(she spends $40 for a pair of pants at one point) with the book's
totally incorrect. Amidst all of the
baloney there were some valid criticism however, the most powerful one
that Ehrenreich never spent much time at any one job.
If she had, the argument goes, over time if
she worked hard she would have gotten raises, earned promotions, and
she would have made a living wage.
The January 2009 Ironweed Film Club disc1 that
that argument forcefully and thoroughly.
Waging a Living, the feature
film, and the two shorts also included on the disc look at the working
poor in America. Are these people just lazy, drug addicts, and
people who don't know how to apply themselves?
Not in the least.
Waging a Living (85
minutes): Is it possible to work hard in
follow the rules, and still live in poverty?
That's the question that is posed by this documentary and the
an unreserved "yes." Originally airing
on PBS, this film follows four people from different areas of the
work full time and are still below the federal poverty level. Jean Reynolds is a 51-year-old certified
nursing assistant who has been working at an elderly care facility for
and only makes $11.00 and hour. In
addition to herself, she has to support her grown up daughter, Bridget,
cancer (at the beginning of the movie the daughter is told to go home
Christmas since it's the last one she'll ever see) and Bridget's four
children. Another woman, Mary
Venittelli, is going through a divorce and finds that she has to
herself and her children with no marketable skills.
The third person is Jerry Longoria, a man who
works as a security guard in San
Francisco, lives alone in a ratty motel room
cheapest place he can find to live,) and dreams of seeing his kids who
the other side of the country. Finally
there is a single mother, Barbara Brooks, who works in a halfway house
non-violent teens. She has to raise her
kids on $8.50/hour.
The one thing that all of these people have in common is
that they work very hard and very long.
All of them at one time or another mention that the way they get
by is through
working overtime, but even with the extra money in their paycheck it's
impossible to make ends meet. When
Barbara puts in three days of overtime during a two week period, the
money she made disappears when her son needs two prescriptions that
$195. The situation is even worse for
Jean (none of these people have health insurance of course) and her
daughter. Bridget has to rely on health
clinics and other low-cost medical options.
While her type of cancer has a very large survival rate, her
is very poor since it took so long to diagnose the problem.
All of these people see education as a way out of poverty,
but that path is long and hard and doesn't often give the results that
expects. It's incredibly hard for these
people to attend classes, Jean, admits that she's just too old and
tired to add
class work to her 40+ hour job along with taking care of four young
kids and a
dying daughter, but some of them do. The
most successful is Barbara, who takes night classes at a local
college and eventually gets her associates degree.
But, when she leaves her $8.50/hour job and
finds employment at $11/hour she runs into trouble.
The extra pay gives her an extra $450/month,
but she no longer qualifies for many services she was receiving. Her subsidized rent goes up $150/month; she
looses her children's Medicaid, food stamps, and utility assistance. When all is said and done she's sliding
backwards, the raise having cost her $600/month in benefits.
The heart-wrenching thing about this documentary is how
often the people who are profiled slide backwards.
Jerry looses his job and finds another one without
too much trouble, but at $2/hour less than he was making.
The union contract guarantees that he'll get
a $0.25/hour raise every year, but at that rate it'll take him 8 years
making the same salary he was, and that's not counting what inflation
These are the people who are trying too. While
most of them are on some kind of public
assistance none of them have stopped working and taken welfare. These are people who are working full-time
and trying to follow the American dream.
This is a very powerful documentary that puts to rest the
that the poor are just lazy or stupid.
Rosevelt's Amreica (25
minutes): Rosevelt Henderson is a
refugee from Liberia. He managed to escape that country's civil war
and made it to America
with his two young sons, but he had to leave his pregnant wife behind. A civil engineer in his homeland, Rosevelt
now does manual labor at a furniture company... until he's laid off and
driving a courtesy van at an airport.
This is a nice film and it's interesting to see the contrast of
immigrant and the people in the feature.
minutes): A look at the residents of the
Faerie Ring Campground who live in portable trailers, meant to be
homes on wheels but are now their year-round housing.
These people are right on the edge of being
homeless. A step below mobile homes,
these trailer dwellers are surviving on the fringe of society. A nice compliment to the other two films.
All three of these documentaries come with a two-channel
soundtrack. None of them were really
exciting, but the dialog was clean and clear.
The audio was anchored on the screen and sounded fine.
These three films were presented with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio,
which has been the standard for documentaries for years, though that is
changing now. The image looked about
average for independent documentaries.
There were some minor problems, a little blooming in one or two
and aliasing was evident in the background.
Aside from that things looked fine.
A nice solid presentation of three nice documentaries.
Aside from a trailer for the Ironweed Film Club and a text
piece about the organization "Common Cause" there were no extras. That's too bad. I
would have been interested in an interview
with the director of Waging a Living too hear his thoughts on some of
he profiled and updates on them would have been appreciated too.
This is the second Ironweed Film Club disc that I've seen,
and it is excellent. The movies fit
together well and all three show a side to American life that many of
get to see. If all of Ironweed's
offerings are this good, getting a subscription is a no-brainer. Highly
1) Ironweed is a
publisher that releases a DVD per month to the members of their film
like Film Movement does.) Each of their
releases is filled with movies and shorts by independent filmmakers