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Working poor eking out a 'Living'

November 11, 2005|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

The dire struggle to survive in the U.S. on near-minimum wage jobs is the subject of "Waging a Living," a forthright documentary by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Roger Weisberg. Through sensitive, in-depth profiles of four workers, Weisberg drives home the point that hard-working men and women with full-time jobs find themselves and their families trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of poverty.

Working 40 or more hours a week, primarily at service industry jobs with few if any benefits, the four battle inflation, bureaucracy and an indifferent society to try to make ends meet:

* Jean Reynolds, a certified nursing assistant in Keansburg, N.J., supports her children and grandchildren on $11 per hour but faces eviction after years of juggling bills. The three-generation family is saved from homelessness by the fact that Reynolds' cancer-stricken daughter (herself the mother of four) is eligible for a housing stipend.

* A San Francisco security guard named Jerry Longoria works in a swanky office building but can barely afford to live in a grungy single-resident-occupancy hotel after he sends $200 a month to his kids in North Carolina. Longoria, a recovering alcoholic, channels his excess energy into working as an advocate for the poor and exercising as he saves for a trip to see his children for the first time in nine years.

* Barbara Brooks, a single mother of five, supports her family by working in the juvenile detention facility in Nassau County, N.Y., where she spent her adolescence, a victim of sexual abuse and domestic violence. To get a better job and improve her family's standard of living, she attends a community college in pursuit of an associate degree.

* As a waitress, Mary Venittelli makes $2.13 plus tips at a rural southern New Jersey restaurant. A costly divorce has dragged her family from a comfortable middle-class existence to the point where she now goes to a neighboring county's food bank to avoid embarrassment.

By using such vivid examples of the "working poor," Weisberg breathes life into what might have been a hailstorm of grim statistics. It's a depressing situation and one that plays out around us every day but seldom gets the exposure that is needed if anything is to be done to improve it.

Also screening is Weisberg and co-director Tod Lending's documentary short "Roosevelt's America," an uplifting account of a Liberian's attempt to reunite his family in Chicago. A civil engineer by trade, Roosevelt Henderson works as a furniture factory laborer, hotel van driver and laboratory janitor after immigrating to the U.S. from his war-torn homeland. Henderson proves extremely resilient in bouncing back from layoffs as he navigates the bureaucratic channels necessary to bring his wife and infant daughter to Chicago.


'Waging a Living'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Public television-ready fare

A Public Policy Productions presentation. Producer-director Roger Weisberg. Editors Sandra Christie, Lewis Erskine, Christopher White. Music Richard Fiocca. "Roosevelt's America." Producers-directors Roger Weisberg, Tod Lending. Editor Christopher White. Music Richard Fiocca. Total running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

At Laemmle's Fairfax, 7907 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 655-4010.

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