Producer/director Roger Weisberg joined public television station Thirteen/WNET New York in 1976. He produced dozens of programs on subjects including aging, domestic violence, juvenile justice, consumer fraud, health care, the environment, and urban poverty. Since 1980, he has written, produced, and directed 25 PBS documentaries through his independent production company, Public Policy Productions. These documentaries have won over 100 awards including Peabody, Emmy, and duPont-Columbia awards.
Weisberg recently talked to CJR Daily about his film, Waging a Living, which follows the daily struggles of four low-wage earners fighting to pull their families out of poverty. Waging a Living, part of the 19th season of public television’s P.O.V. series, makes its national broadcast debut on PBS on August 29.
Liz Cox Barrett: Why did you make this documentary? Did a specific moment or event or person inspire it?
Roger Weisberg: I’ve made many films for PBS over the years that have dealt with different aspects of poverty and have taken viewers inside the lives of people grappling with similar problems, but in particular a film that I made called Ending Welfare As We Know It inspired this follow-up report. In Ending Welfare as We Know It we chronicled what happened to people who hit their lifetime limit and came off the welfare rolls and had to try to find work. Most were unable to find and hold jobs and almost no one we were profiling was able to find a job that paid a living wage. And so even though they were working as hard as they could and struggling heroically, they couldn’t support their families. Our conclusion was that we ended welfare as we knew it but not poverty as we knew it. And so I wanted to dedicate my attention and focus to the working poor and investigate what it’s like to try to work paycheck to paycheck in a low-wage job and support a family.
LCB: How difficult was it to find your subjects/the individuals in the film? Was there much reluctance on the part of participants or potential participants to tell their stories — one woman talks about feeling ashamed to be a low income worker at her age, for example. Another woman drives to another town’s food pantry to avoid people she might know.
RW: You’ve touched on the pride that I think all of the people had and the embarrassment they had in the couple of instances where they had to turn to the government for assistance. These are not folks who are accustomed to relying on a government hand-out. They’ve worked all of their lives. So I think there was a certain shame but also a certain pride I think in having a voice, having their experiences validated and in knowing this was gong to reach a broader audience. And there also was a really altruistic feeling on the part of all of them that maybe they could help somebody else if not themselves.
Having said that, we probably interviewed 100 people to find the dozen or so we filmed for three years and, as you know, we ended up with four in the film. That was quite a process of pre-interviewing and trying to find the ones that represent the greatest diversity, whose stories were emblematic of the kind of policy dilemmas that our legislators face, and it was important that the stories not only have a dramatic arch but that they don’t overlap but rather complement each other. All of those considerations were included in selecting the final four that you saw in the film.
LCB: How, generally, does the press cover people like the four individuals in your film and the issues that most affect their lives (welfare reform, minimum wage, income inequality, etc). What’s right and what’s wrong with the coverage? Which reporters or media outlets have done it well — are there certain stories or journalists you admire?