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What I Learned from PBS's Documentary, Waging a Living

Updated on May 6, 2016

Education is the most important factor in career success. With the recession, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for those without a college degree to find and maintain jobs. Even a college degree doesn’t promise job security or stability these days.

The majority of young people don’t get college degrees. Black and Latino youth, specifically, need to utilize the gift that is education because so many end up consumed by poverty, crime, and drugs. In Waging a Living, a man named Jerry Longoria is facing some of that adversity. Jerry is a security guard who lives paycheck to paycheck. For single room occupancy he pays $530 a month and only makes $12 an hour at his job. Jerry faced hard times where he dealt in alcohol and drugs with his former wife before turning his life around in rehab. After purging his life of the addictions he carried, he is still in poverty with $10 in the bank and shopping at thrift stores. Over half of those who started the decade in poverty, remained there ten years later (Waging a Living). Five months after we started following him, he lost his job. Unemployment has become a national epidemic. Although the official rate of unemployment in American is between around 4.5 percent, many jobless people aren’t counted in the rate (The Danger Zone, NY Times). Many have been out of work too long to be included in the statistics. The rates specifically for black and Latino youth are incredibly devastating. This group’s rate of unemployment is ranges between 25 to 40 percent and even here, 75 to 80 percent of black and Latino young people are not counted (America’s Job Disaster, NY Times). Many of them aren’t even looking for work because they live in neighborhoods where jobs aren’t available. Today, with so many people being laid off, there are too few job opportunities and too many people in need of jobs. The Department of Labor reported that 97,000 jobs were created in February (The Danger Zone, NY Times). This isn’t sufficient enough to accommodate the new entrants into the work force, let alone suffice for the steadily increasingly number of those being laid off. The difference between getting one of these few jobs is to have a strong educational background.

Not only is maintaining a job important but being given decent wages is crucial as well. Those with a high school diploma make an average of $26,795 a year, whereas someone with a bachelor’s degree will earn $50,623 annually (Waging a Living). Mary is the perfect example of how important sufficient wages are. Mary is a waitress who makes $2.18 an hour and is going through a divorce with two children. She was left with no money after her husband left. She married young and didn’t get an education. Now that she is on her own, she lacks the skills to find a better job. The standard of living for her family drastically shifted after the divorce. Her car was repossessed and she is in danger of losing her house. After divorce, the standard of living raises 10% for men and drops 27% for women (Waging a Living). Mary is currently $15,000 in credit card debt and is dealing with $12,000 in lawyer fees. She can’t afford to go back to school to potentially find a new career because she is living paycheck to paycheck. It is vital to pursue higher education right after high school for later in life. It is especially key for black and Latino youth since a black male who drops out of high school is sixty times more likely to end up in jail than one with a bachelor’s degree (Education, Education, Education, NY Times).

Families headed by single mothers are five times more likely to be poor than those with who parents (Waging a Living). Jean Reynolds is a single parent with three kids who supports five. She only makes $11 an hour after fourteen years of loyal work as a nurse. Jean brings home a little over six hundred dollars every two weeks which can just pay her rent of $1200. In order to take care of her expenses, she has to work massive amounts of overtime and even then she can barely pay her bills. Not only is she without a sufficient amount of money to survive, she doesn’t have health insurance. This is incredibly distressing because her daughter, Bridget, has mastisized cancer. About 18,000 Americans die every year because they don’t have health insurance (Waging a Living).

Barbara has five kids and is a fulltime student and works fulltime. She started out making $8.25 an hour monitoring children in a group home. She is on food stamps, Medicaid, receives utility assistance and Section 8. Only 37% of single mothers receive child support and Barbara is no different. She only receives $100 a month in child support once in a while. When Barbara received a raise from $8.25 to $11 an hour, she lost most of her government assistance. She said she is “hustling backwards.” The harder she works the harder things get for her. Barbara persevered and received her associate’s degree. Even though she could potentially save money if she weren’t in school, she recognized that she could lose her position because she lacks education. Workers with an associate’s degree earn thirty percent more than those with a high school diploma (Waging a Living). After she got her associate’s degree, she was able to find a new job that started her at $12.10 an hour which amounts to $900 every two weeks. This new job offered her medical benefits, sick leave, her birthday off, and a review every ninety days for a raise. Unfortunately, she was making too much money to receive the government benefits she needed so she had to start working part-time and went back to school for her bachelor’s degree. Employment rates rose from 33 percent to 86 percent as blacks and Latinos continued to get higher degrees (Education, Education, Education, NY Times).

Meritocracy no longer exists. Many people work hard and never achieve the American Dream. With such an unstable economy, young people need to do as much as they can to improve their chances of living well in the future. Their chances are greatly improved if they go forth and pursue higher education. Living in a service economy, credentials, education, and proof of skills are the requirements for high paying jobs. The days of low-skill, high-paying jobs are over. Everyone who doesn’t want to be part of the growing group of working poor needs to get their degrees.


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