When news broadcaster Ray Suarez lost his job anchoring the nightly news for Al Jazeera America in 2016, he was faced with unexpected economic and professional uncertainty just as he was reaching that point in life where agism often limits opportunity. Despite an illustrious career that included PBS “NewsHour” and NPR, Suarez hustled to land another job. In the midst of looking for work, he had a bicycle accident and hurt his jaw. He needed to see a dentist — but he had just given up his dental insurance to save money. Suarez’s life had become a story he had previously only reported, one that millions of Americans have experienced. He decided to turn his focus to covering the very structures of power that had knocked him down.
As part of his third act, Suarez hosts “Insecurity,” a three-part documentary series produced in collaboration with The Intercept and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. The films tell the stories of three women who grapple for what they need after the pandemic upends their lives: social services, a living wage, or decent mental health care. Each woman is plagued by the American insistence on individual survival, where the pressure to be self-reliant hurts us, but it can seem like all we have to fall back on.
In the first film, “In the Red Tape,” Lisa Ventura, a social worker living in New Jersey, is overwhelmed by paperwork. She spends her days helping both clients and her newly unemployed father, whose primary language is Spanish, navigate the social services system. During the pandemic 1 in 4 Americans have received at least one unemployment insurance payment, but these checks can be hard to obtain. The baroque difficulty of getting unemployment money or other social services is sometimes known as “the administrative burden.” These entitlements were often created to be difficult to access, leading to low “take-up rates,” or artificially depressed levels of enrollment by those who are eligible. This baked-in obstruction is why Ventura’s own father ends up needing her help to apply for aid.
The second film, “A Fight for More Than 15,” centers on Eshawney Gaston, a young mother whose infant son was born prematurely, as she tries to piece together a sustainable wage as one of the more than 3 million fast-food workers in this country. The common wisdom of our mainstream pundits insists that in the time of the “Great Resignation,” anyone who hates their job can breezily quit and anyone who wants a new one can land one. This is not true for Gaston and others like her who scramble to find low-wage jobs they can survive on.
Katie Prout is the protagonist of the third film, “Forgotten by Medicaid.” A poorly paid independent reporter in Chicago, Prout struggles to find psychiatric care covered by Medicaid when her mental health deteriorates during the pandemic. Prout’s story illustrates a broader phenomenon: The epidemic of anxiety and depression left in the pandemic’s wake is often under-treated because those who are suffering cannot actually find or afford help.
In spite of these hardships, each woman in our triptych ultimately finds some solace when they connect their individual circumstances to a broader systemic solution. Gaston joins “Raise Up,” a worker-led organization fighting for a $15 federal minimum wage. In becoming part of a larger national uprising that includes workers at giant companies like Amazon and Starbucks, Gaston shows what is possible for women like her, even as employers and public policy seem arrayed against them.
Prout finds some redemption in working with people experiencing homelessness and substance use disorder. In a reversal of roles, one recommends a mental health professional who finally helps Prout get the treatment she needs. In Ventura’s case, she decides to quit her job to minimize burnout, conscious of the “invisible labor” that she routinely performs for her own family and community.
While the pandemic unduly burdened each woman in “Insecurity,” they all end up finding their way to something like hope.
Alissa Quart is the executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and the author of six books, most recently “Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America” (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2018). Her new book “Bootstrapped” will be out in 2022.
Co-published with The Intercept.