“There’s no American dream anymore,” claims Jean Reynolds, a 51-year-old certified nursing assistant in New Jersey who earns $11 an hour. This statement comes in the midst of Roger Weisberg’s often disturbing but uneven documentary “Waging a Living,” which focuses on a quartet of adults who work hard yet seem stuck in the lower levels of poverty.
Reynolds supports three children (including an adult daughter with thyroid cancer) and two grandchildren. Barbara Brooks, a 36-year-old counselor at a Long Island juvenile detention facility, makes $8.25 an hour and supports her five children. Mary Venittelli, a 41-year-old mother of three in New Jersey, makes $2.13 an hour plus tips as a waitress. The sole man in the group is Jerry Longoria, 42, who makes $12 an hour as a San Francisco security guard and lives in a dingy SRO hotel. He lost custody of his children due to years of drug and alcohol abuse. Longoria’s kids are in North Carolina with their mother and his goal is to see them, for the first time in nine years.
All four attempt to make something better of their lives, but the proverbial lucky break eludes them. Reynolds faces eviction from her home and runs into a social services quagmire when she attempts to get help. Brooks earns an Associate’s Degree and lands a somewhat higher paying job, but she loses government benefits and sees a rent increase, which effectively eats up her higher wages plus more. Venittelli is in the midst of a nasty divorce and she is unable to control her increasingly unhappy children. Longoria seems to be the most focused of the four, yet a disagreement with his employer results in the loss of his job. He lands a new position, but at a lower wage. Brooks clearly speaks for all of them when she describes the situation as “hustling backwards.”
It is a tragic situation, to be certain, especially the scene when Reynolds literally loses her cool with an unctuous social services agent about where she and her family are going to live after they are evicted (the suggestion of staying in a welfare motel causes Reynolds to go on a mini-warpath).
But “Waging a Living” seems to skirt some rather obvious questions. The three women are single mothers, but the absence of the fathers is fairly conspicuous (especially for Brooks, with five children ranging from a toddler to a teen, and it appears all five don’t share the same father). Whether the men refused to appear on camera or whether Weisberg failed to locate them is unclear, but their absence (both from the film and from the lives of their children) is obnoxious.
Reynolds and Longoria are also union members, yet there is no input from the union leadership here on why their workers are making such puny salaries. I somehow suspect the union bosses don’t earn $12 an hour (have you ever seen a starving union president?), yet the failure to put union muscle into decent wages is shocking. The film has a brief moment from the 2004 presidential campaign of John Kerry addressing a union gathering, but obviously nothing ever came of that foray (at least from the union’s perspective). It is not certain how much Reynolds and Longoria are paying for union dues, but whatever it is the money doesn’t seem to be helping them at all.
Also, some on-screen behavior seems to suggest that three of the four subjects are not saving every penny. Brooks goes through the film with elaborately lacquered fingernails, an excess quantity of jewelry and several different hairstyles. Longoria pays $50 a month for gym membership. Venittelli chain smokes throughout her scenes. For people who are supposedly hanging on by a thread, this seems like a strange way to spend money.