I showed my freshman composition classes the documentary Waging a Living and asked for their reactions halfway through the film and again at the end. At the halfway point, my students (some, not alL) were negative: those people were wearing too much jewelry, had houses, smoked. They had too many kids (duh, they could just use birth control, obviously, or not have sex), they could ask for a raise, they could take on another job. My students were confident in their answers, in their ability to see the world for the black-and-white place we all know it is.
By the time we finished the film, things were no longer so clear. One student said she was struggling in college, that this first semester is hard for her, but “It makes me want to drop out less.” She better understands the “value” in a four-year degree. It was on the tip of my tongue to take up this debate. What is the value of a four-year degree, after all, when everyone is “expected” to get one and yet only about 30% of people who enter college actually graduate?
Another student said he and his mother used to live like one of the families on the documentary. No Christmas, he shared, and since it was just him and his mom, his mom used to vent to him about how hard it was. He said he was happy because he was a kid–and that his mom tried to keep him happy by taking him to parks–but that his mom was unhappy and hated that she wasn’t able to give him more.
My students seemed to feel that the answers weren’t so clear-cut anymore. One girl still held to the idea that these people who are in poverty should just not have kids (or at least not so many) and held strong to the idea that they could “just not have sex.” When I asked her if perhaps some of these people were having sex because they felt they had no voice to say “no” to their partner over the long run, she didn’t have an answer for me. Before she brought up that point, I hadn’t even thought about the disenfranchised in these sort of relationships–but if people in committed relationships in general sometimes have trouble expressing themselves, how much harder might it be if one person is holding economic power over the other? Or if they’re pro-life? Or if, for whatever reason, they wind up with more kids than they might have planned for?
This led me to ask my students why the four people (and their families) featured on the documentary might have agreed to be part of this project. One said it could be motivation (they wouldn’t want everyone to see them trying and failing). Another offered the suggestion that it was a way of raising awareness. Another asked if the participants had been paid. I didn’t want to give them a right answer. I don’t have a right answer.
What I wish I had an answer for is symptomatic of a system that isn’t really designed to help people leave it–despite the rhetoric that we would love for welfare families to stop “leaching” off the government (or other such similar sentiments). Why is it that as soon as people receive a minimal wage increase, their payments for various things which have previously been subsidized increase exponentially more than their actual income? Again and again, the documentarian showed this pushing the people back into positions of poverty shortly after we’d watched them rise upward. Of course this is a tricky rhetorical strategy on the documentarian’s part–he would like to increase our sympathy to the working poor, to cause us to feel outraged at the situations these people are placed in. And for my students at least, this technique worked.