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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Waging A Living

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"There's no American dream anymore," insists New Jersey nursing assistant Jean Reynolds, one of four low-wage strivers profiled in Roger Weisberg's Waging A Living. The documentary is about how people can't pull themselves up by their own bootstraps while they're working to pay off landlords, drug companies, and creditors, and Reynolds is a prime example, since her twice-monthly $600 paychecks go toward $1,200-a-month rent on the house she shares with three kids and four grandkids. San Francisco security guard Jerry Longoria works in a fancy downtown office building but lives in a squalid single-room downtown apartment because he has to be able to get to work on time. Waitress Mary Venittelli is about to lose her house and car because she can't pay her billsâ€"not even with the new credit card that just arrived. And Barbara Brooks, a mother of five who goes to college at night, finds that the more money she makes, the more she has to pay for what government aid once covered. She calls it "hustling backwards."

Unlike the apocalyptic devastation of the Great Depression as seen in feature films like Cinderella Man, the poverty in Waging A Living comes packaged in clean suburban homes with cable TV. It's a shadow America, where the poor dress nice and go out in public to take drink orders. Weisberg peppers his footage with stats on poverty rates, child support, and health insurance, and he reaches a handful of clear conclusions: Social services are important, education matters as much for its dollar value as for its personal enrichment, and any time workers talk about their wages in terms of hourly rates, even raises aren't going to make a real difference.

Waging A Living is full of dramatic moments, particularly the sequences involving Venittelli, who cries when she has to pick up dinner at a food bank, then laughs while listening to Everclear sing sardonically about "the joy of a welfare Christmas." Venittelli sometimes comes home from work with $30 in her pocket and has to pay her sitter $28, and like a lot of the people Weisberg covers, she thinks about how much money she could save if she was back in a relationship and sharing her financial burdens. Waging A Living's biggest failing is that Weisberg gives his subjects too much of a pass when it comes to their bad past romantic and career choices, but the movie does hint at how having a family can be a blessing and an albatross to people facing unclimbable hills. Even after one of Venittelli's few moments of triumphâ€"the completion of her divorceâ€"she stops to think about legal bills and kids to feed and sighs, "I'm independent, but I'm not free."