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I Will Buy You a New Life 

Jerry Longoria lives in a single-room-occupancy hotel and works as a security officer in San Francisco.
The P.O.V. documentary Waging a Living (airing on PBS Tuesday, August 29, at 10 p.m.) would be more aptly titled “It’s Hard Out Here for a Single Mom.” Filmed over three years in California and the northeast, this is exactly the kind of feature that keeps young people (read: moi) scared shitless of starting a family. Yes, I realize I’m hardly capable of rearing small animals, but still.

Three of the four workers whose impoverished lives are followed in Waging a Living are single mothers, each with custody of several children. (Perhaps to balance the fact that all of the fathers are MIA, Jerry Longoria, the sole male individual in the documentary, is portrayed as a committed parent for sending his own estranged children $200 dollars a month.) For these women, earning $11 to $13 an hour just isn’t cutting it. And the system seems to be working against them. After Barbara Brooks gets an almost three-dollar-an-hour raise (an increase of about $450 per month) she becomes ineligible for assistance and loses almost $600 in government benefits for herself and her children.

For the most part, the workers’ many children seem docile and helpful, save for Mary Venittelli’s son, who, during the process of her divorce, starts throwing tantrums and large, sharp objects, making Frank’s (Owen Kline) chronic masturbation/drinking problem in The Squid and the Whale look like minor broken-home-inspired misbehavior. After acquiring her kids’ Christmas gifts from an Elf Louise-like operation, Mary croons Everclear’s “I Will Buy You a New Life” (“They have never been poor / They have never had the joy of a welfare Christmas”). Oh, contrived.

All of the people in Waging a Living are single, so it’s fascinating to see what the possibility of a relationship holds for each of them. Jerry all but says it would be nice (cheap) to share his life (apartment) with someone. Mary begins dating a barber, who is also, as it turns out, a free babysitter — although I would suggest he’s testing, less foppishly than Hugh Grant, the About a Boy “single mums” route.

Waging a Living offers a revealing look at the education factor in poverty. Jean Reynolds, a certified nurse assistant, is unable to go back to school for an LVN or RN license to increase her rate of pay because she is struggling to care for her children and grandchildren. Barbara decides to pursue a bachelor’s degree in an effort to increase her marketability, and because it means she can work part-time, regaining government benefits like food stamps and Medicaid that she lost when she got a raise. And, fed up with waiting tables, Mary starts taking a computer class to widen her employment options.

Living’s four stories are interwoven with enlightening facts about the working poor that attempt to grant a sense of organization and pacing. Initially, Jean, Jerry, Barbara and Mary’s points-of-view seem to be rotating in an orderly fashion, but late in the documentary everything gets out-of-sync, disrupting the rhythm of the film. In the classic tradition of television documentaries, the (mostly elevator) music is horrendously bad, but Waging a Living is still worth viewing, Everclear or no.

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February 24, 2021

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