Waging a Living: Part 6 in a series on JustFaith

By Stephanie Block

The next material to examine, used by the JustFaith program, is Waging a Living, a documentary directed by New York’s public broadcasting station’s Roger Weisberg, who founded Public Policy Productions.

In an interview about the film, Weisberg explains that he wants it to bring an awareness of the policy issues behind the stories. He has looked for the strongest characters, who “can push a kind of policy agenda – in this case, an agenda of trying to find ways to enable low wage workers to advance and pull their families out of poverty. The idea that you can work full time and still be poor in this society is a real crime and the numbers of working poor have risen so dramatically. You got, since 1977, a 50% increase in the numbers of workers working full time, who are still poor….These are not just anecdotal stories out there without some sort of policy context….they exist in this broader context where all of us have to be engaged to make things better.” [see Video interview)

In another interview, Weisberg was more specific about how his film was being used to “push a policy agenda.” He said, “Three different organizations — The Hatcher Group, Outreach Extensions, and POV — have organized screenings and policy forums in over 30 cities. These events are designed to bring together legislators, civic leaders, business leaders, labor organizers, and advocacy groups to address the policy implications of the issues raised by film. An event that was hosted by the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C. on July 26th made a special effort to target legislators.” [www.pbs.org/pov/wagingaliving/ask_the_filmmaker.php]

Waging a Living has chosen strong characters with compelling stories. Each is attractive, hard working, committed to a family, and struggling hard to overcome personal battles. The viewer wants to see these people succeed.

What isn’t explained is exactly what this “broader context” is to which Weisberg refers or precisely what its “policy implications” are. Two of the four characters followed by the documentary work with the SEIU – the Service Employees International Union. The “engagement” to which the documentary calls its viewers would seem to include, therefore, support of SEIU.

The more important question, however, is how JustFaith wants the documentary to be used. Week 8 of the program spends the first half viewing the documentary. Facilitators have been directed to a Penn State “Poverty in America” Living Wage calculator, which is organized by state and county. [www.livingwage.geog.psu.edu] A spreadsheet compares the living wage, poverty wage, and minimum wage for various family configurations (one adult, one child, for instance or two adults, two children) in every US county and then gives the expense figures – again, varied by family size, composition, and location – that went into the living wage estimate. Child care is presumed, as is a single income. What one sees, of course, is that minimum wage (and certainly not the even more depressing poverty wage) is sufficient to cover all the basic living expenses of even a single adult, let alone a family.

Is it supposed to?

The session’s opening prayer reflection says the “…we affirm that God can remake and reshape our lives to fit the new purposes that the Holy Spirit has for us. But how do we know what those purposes are? How can we discover what God has in mind for us?” These are good questions.

After watching Waging a Living, participants are asked questions to spark the discussion: What is the American Dream? Are you living the American Dream? How might the people in this film answer that question? Which of the people in this film did you identify most closely with and why? Do you think people find it difficult to seek out charitable social services?

These questions are affective – designed to resonate emotionally with the participants – without addressing the bigger questions, which have not yet been asked: Why are these people poor? Is raising the minimum wage the only way they can be helped? Is it even the best way to help them?

However, only 10 minutes has been allotted to discussing the documentary directly. For the remainder of the session, participants turn to a section from Marvin Mich’s The Challenge and Spirituality of Catholic Social Teaching. Here, Mich references a 2002 Pastoral Reflection of the U.S. Catholic Bishops (specifically, prepared by the Committees on Domestic and International Policy) titled “A Place at the Table: A Catholic Recommitment to Overcome Poverty and to Respect the Dignity of All God's Children.”

This document, as Mich explains it, uses the metaphor of a table to suggest that there are four legs or “institutions” “that must take up their unique responsibility in addressing poverty. The table rests on (1) families and individuals, (2) community and religious institutions, (3) the private sector, and (4) the government. By identifying these four institutions, the bishops are spreading out the responsibilities among a diverse set of people and agencies, with each bringing something different to the table.” (Mich, p 161)

JustFaith participants are asked to discuss “in what ‘legs’ you personally participate. How do you live out the role you have in one or more of these legs of the table? How are the four ‘legs’ of the table helpful in discussing a Catholic response to poverty?”

Session 8 then closes with the “mantra prayer,” taken from the words of a popular hymn: “Let us build the city of God. May our tears be turned into dancing…”

It is obvious that JustFaith participants are being subtly formed to identify with – to sympathize with – a particular economic system that they haven’t studied or understood intellectually. Compassion for the poor has been emotionally equated with advocating a government response to poverty.

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