Working, Stiffed

It's difficult to imagine a more sympathetic figure than Barbara Brooks. A full-time child care supervisor and part-time college student, Brooks is raising five kids on her own in a downmarket Long Island town. In the entire 90 minutes of Roger Weisberg's Waging a Living, a documentary about the working poor set to air on PBS on August 29, few moments resonate more than when Brooks wipes away tears to explain, “The harder I work, the harder it gets.”

Premiering a week after the tenth anniversary of welfare reform, Brooks' on-screen debut also happens to fall precisely one year after Hurricane Katrina thrust poverty back into the national consciousness. This is all the more resonant when one considers the fact that only about 13 percent of Katrina's evacuees were unemployed, according to a Washington Post survey conducted of the storm's refugees in Houston shelters last September. Nonetheless, 60 percent had family incomes under $20,000 a year.

Still, as Weisberg spins a tale of struggling workers, it's really the aftermath of welfare reform, not Katrina, that he is chronicling. Though Weisberg does little to place his work in that context -- a decision that severely diminishes its prospects for political resonance -- the film nonetheless offers a compelling portrait of the working poor.

We meet all four of our protagonists in the film's early minutes. There is Jean Reynolds, 51, leading a household of eight while working as a nursing assistant and serving actively in her SEIU local in northern New Jersey. Next up is Jerry Longoria, a recovering alcoholic who works as a security guard in San Francisco, and who's also an SEIU activist. Mary Venitelli is a recently divorced New Jersey mother of three waiting tables. And then there's Barbara Brooks, whose struggle to get ahead provides the film with its emotional center.

Covering three full years, Weisberg cuts between the subjects' stories throughout the film, with the unfortunate effect of making it difficult to keep each narrative straight. But the chaotic structure actually makes it easier to convey the central lesson: Working poverty isn't just about a lack of money; it's about being trapped in a high-wire act with only the most tenuous of safety nets below.

Indeed, though none of the film's subjects meets with abject destitution, every one of them is no more than a stroke of bad luck away from it. Reynolds only avoids homelessness once she takes a camera crew with her to the local social services office; Venitelli's salvation comes in the shape of a good-hearted boyfriend who already has an SUV big enough to tote her and her kids around. Longoria's status drops a bit when he changes jobs after an argument with his boss -- the film never reveals greater detail than that -- but he continues to plug along. Brooks even manages to convince her employer to let her drop to part-time so that she can return to school, a request she successfully makes with the camera crew present.

The film is a compelling documentary, and those already interested in the plight of the poor will find ample inspiration for outrage. But Waging isn't intended to be just another bit of preaching to the choir; as part of PBS's P.O.V. series, it's being shown in community forums and policy offices. A screening in New York City drew advocates and local officials; one in D.C. drew in federal policymakers and experts; others around the country are being run more as community forums. Apart from simply putting a human face on the problem of poverty, Waging is clearly intended to help foster a call for change, and it's here that it falters badly.

Heart-wrenching as the tales told may be, the filmmakers do little more than tell them. Conveyed with little context beyond intermittent statistics, the stories in Waging do woefully little to counter dominant conservative arguments about poverty. The most glaring omission comes in using three single mothers as subjects without providing any substantive counter to the perennial conservative argument that the solution to poverty is marriage. (Indeed, at a post-screening panel in New York City, conservative Lawrence Mead, a local workfare proponent, raised marriage immediately as an obvious solution to the subjects' problems.) Progressives may reject the idea that marriage is centrally relevant to the issues at hand, but they concede far too much ground to conservatives when they fail to actually articulate a case against that notion.

The film suffers from a similar lack of context concerning the role of welfare reform in creating a series of vicious catch-22s -- even as it fostered a dramatic expansion of programs to help the working poor. For example, Brooks receives a raise from $8.25 an hour to $11. She already depends on a series of government programs designed to support work -- much of which are, in fact, funded with federal welfare money -- but her higher income pushes her over the income limits for child care and medical insurance, and requires her to pay more towards her rent; Brooks estimates that she loses $600 a month in benefits because of her $450 increase in income.

Discussing her prospects, Brooks unabashedly wipes away tears. “I feel like I'm hustling backwards,” she says again and again. But the film doesn't expend much effort connecting the dots between policy decisions and personal experience, leaving the viewer with the same feeling of helpless despair as Brooks. Waging tells the personal stories beautifully -- but does little that will help keep them from being repeated further down the line.

Tracie McMillan frequently writes about poverty, child care, and issues of food access and nutrition education. A Brooklyn-based freelance writer, she has won several national awards for her work in City Limits, a local urban affairs news magazine where she is currently a contributing editor.

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