Roger Weisberg on Waging a Living and How the Press Covers Poverty

The award-winning documentary filmmaker discusses the process and challenges of depicting poverty in America.

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?

RW: There is very limited coverage. There are very few feature stories — the New York Times Magazine did one earlier this year that was really a fantastic piece (“What is a Living Wage,” by Jon Gertner). NPR has covered these issues as have people like David Brancaccio, Bill Moyers, and NewsHour on PBS. But most of the coverage I see is really tied to a specific issue, like when Congress was voting on a minimum wage increase a few weeks ago there was a flurry of [media] attention but then it died out and went away. I think there has to be a kind of news hook for the media to pay attention. It was really surprising that people were so shocked to see the human face of poverty when Katrina hit about a year ago. I think for many people that was one of the first times they confronted that kind of poverty in their midst. It’s a shame it takes a catastrophe like that to make people aware of poverty in our midst.

LCB: It sounds like you’re implying the media has some responsibility for that?

RW: Well I think that these are not terribly sexy stories unless there’s a hook like a big vote on minimum wage. There has been more coverage lately because I think the Democrats have decided that raising the minimum wage will be an important issue in the midterm elections. During the last presidential election, John Edwards began talking about “Two Americas” and there was a lot of attention around some of the issues he was addressing. I think because most people have their own daily grind, their own financial struggles that it’s tough to get them to pay attention to and sympathize with the problems other people are having sometimes. And I think that as a result it’s hard for the commercial media to give these issues the attention I think they deserve. The other fact is this is a population that is marginalized and largely disenfranchised, they aren’t a very organized voting block — they need to be. I think that’s another reason that they perhaps don’t get the attention they deserve.

LCB: What, in your opinion, doesn’t the average American “get” about people in circumstances like the subjects of your film — misperceptions that, maybe, even you had about low wage workers before you began the project?

RW: I don’t think I personally had too many misconceptions having been reporting on these issues for a couple of decades. However one of the things that surprised me was the incredible optimism in the face of really Herculean struggles. In the stories we told our subjects all believed that they were ultimately going to advance in the workforce and pull their families out of poverty. They all bought into the American Dream even though daily reality of their lives belied that faith. And so that was somewhat surprising to me that more weren’t beaten down and depressed but maintained that resiliency and optimism.

I think there is a perception among a lot of people that you get what you deserve and you deserve what you get in this world. If people are poor it is because of their own personal limitations, they have made bad choices in their lives. And what I think — what I hope — this film does is show that these are people who are playing by the same rules you and I do, who get up everyday and go to work to support their families, who aren’t looking for a handout from the government, who are trying to make ends meet and simply can’t. I hope we’ve challenged that assumption that if you’re poor, somehow it must be your fault, you lack drive and initiative, you have made poor choices, your children have been born out of wedlock or you’re involved in substance abuse or you’re looking for the government to take care of you. There are so many of those notions out there and by presenting by what I think are really sympathetic profiles of earnest, honest, hard-working Americans, I hope people can take another look at some of those misconceptions.

LCB: Regarding the surprising optimism you said your subjects had. You’ve talked about how having cameras trained on your subjects affected the reality you were trying to portray. Did the cameras have an impact in this case, on your subjects’ outlooks/attitudes?

RW: It’s possible. But we spent so much time with these folks — over three years — that they were pretty authentic and candid in their expression. I think this idea of the American Dream inculcated in all of us was equally absorbed by the folks we profiled. They on some level felt that even though the day hadn’t arrived, it was coming when they would finally be out of the trap they found themselves in. I think it has to do with this pervasive American dream and some of them did make progress and were moving ahead. The film was as much about the struggles and frustration as it was about the aspirations and accomplishments of these folks. It was a mixed picture, not one that it was 100 percent of the subjects going backwards or nowhere.

LCB: Back to how your cameras affected the reality of what you were trying to portray. There was one case where the cameras maybe even changed an outcome for one of your subjects (for the better). Any examples of how your cameras have changed an outcome for the worse?

RW: I don’t. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen but I’m not aware of it. Generally when a story is getting this kind of media scrutiny the authorities — whether it’s a government agency, a doctor, or a school — everyone wants to be seen in a positive light. In general, the camera is inclined to put people on good behavior rather than the other way around. I don’t know of an instance where someone was punished for their participation.

LCB: And, how do you characterize what you do? Investigative journalism? Advocacy journalism? Storytelling?

RW: I think it’s a combination, of, using the jargon of my field this was an observational longitudinal cinema verité-style documentary. Our approach was to have the story told through the experiences and words of our subjects and not be told by experts. We didn’t want policy wonks, politicians to tell viewers what to think. We wanted them to vicariously experience what our subjects were experiencing but in addition to that we were interested in capturing moments that brought up the kinds of policy dilemmas that we hoped the film could address. We want the film to put a face on a problem that policy makers and experts can address so in that sense I think we’re hoping to advance the public debate. A combination of the craft of filmmaking and storytelling with a solid journalistic intent to advance the public debate about a crucial timely social issue.

LCB: Your film subjects have included: deaf children and adults, brothers growing up with a drug-addicted mother, young people aging out of foster care, people who arrive at the ER without health insurance, low wage workers, among others. What do you see as the common thread? What ultimately draws you to a particular subject or situation?

RW: In all of the films I’ve made where people are grappling with some of the effects of poverty the common thread is wanting to widen opportunities for people who haven’t had some of the advantages I’ve had and some others have had. I think that is a common thread. Whether the subject is the foster care system, the welfare system, the healthcare system, the mental health system, I’m invariably examining the lives of disadvantaged children and families. I think that the thrust in all those films is to look at what we can do and how we can do a better job of serving those disadvantaged children and families and also for the sake of our communities dong a better job.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.