Why Oh Why Are We Ruled by These Fools? (Your President Speaks! Edition)
More Signs of Weak Aggregate Demand

Waging a Living

Covering the unskilled working class:

They work hard (too hard) for the money: - Mick LaSalle, Chronicle Movie Critic: Waging a Living: Documentary. With Jean Reynolds, Jerry Longoria, Barbara Brooks and Mary Venittelli. Directed by Roger Weisberg. (Unrated. 85 minutes. At Bay Area theaters.)

"Waging a Living" is a documentary about the working poor in America, people who have full-time jobs and can't get by on their low-paying or minimum wage salaries. Directed by Roger Weisberg, the film is without narration but occasionally drops a statistic onto the screen that relates the specific case histories to a general problem -- for example that housing costs have tripled since 1979, while wages for the bottom 20 percent of the work force have remained stagnant.

Weisberg follows [four] people over the course of several years: Jean Reynolds, a nursing assistant supporting three kids and seven grandchildren on 11 dollars an hour; Barbara Brooks, who's supporting three kids as a counselor, while going to school for her associate's degree; Mary Venittelli, a woman with three kids, who drops from comfort into poverty following a divorce; and the lone West Coast entry, Jerry Longoria, a security guard in San Francisco. The four subjects are engaging and intelligent, fighting long odds and working extra hours, living without health care and having no time for rest and little for sleep. The struggle is unrelenting, the stories poignant. Among the many revelations in "Waging a Living" is the surprising fact that those security guards, working the desks in the lobbies of Market Street's most opulent office buildings, are making 10 and 11 bucks an hour -- in San Francisco.

The intent of "Waging a Living" is to inspire outrage, and to an extent it succeeds. But in every country, somebody's going to be broke, and the film sometimes overestimates the shock we should feel that people with no education or skills and lots of kids should be feeling the squeeze. After all, it's hardly esoteric information that dropping out of school and having children early is a recipe for poverty. A viewer could easily come away, in fact, consoled that there are so many programs to help people who find themselves at a disadvantage. Likewise, though the government's efforts to wean people off of the system sometimes results in dispiriting situations like Barbara Brooks' (she gets a $450 raise and loses $600 in aid), it's not unreasonable that there should be incentives for people to get off assistance.

However, the film makes two points so persuasively as to seem beyond dispute. The first is that fathers are getting away scot free, that there's no system for tracking down deadbeat dads and that court-ordered child support is often treated as something optional. The second is that people who work hard should be able to get ahead, that it's unfair and un-American that, in a nation founded on the idea of the second chance, people can't climb their way out of poverty.

That's the point of the film -- people who work hard should have a decent life -- and it's hardly unreasonable. It's the way it used to be, after all. Sixty-five years ago even the soda jerk in "Meet John Doe" got to live in a house.

Actually it isn't the way it used to be. Fifty years ago absolute material poverty was far deeper than it is today. Of course, absolute material poverty is only one dimension of real poverty.