May 3: Hard Earned presents America's working-class heroes

Hard Earned, an original new six-part documentary series produced by Kartemquin Films, will begin airing Sunday, May 3rd at 10 pm ET/7pm PT as part of Al Jazeera America's documentary series Al Jazeera America Presents.

Ahead of the broadcast premiere, two of the shows stars - Emilia Stancati, and De'Jaun "DJ" Jackson - and two directors - Maria Finitzo and Ruth Leitman - appeared on Fox's Good Day Chicago morning show to discuss the series.

For those of you who are in the Chicago area, join the producers and subjects this Sunday, May 3 at 3:30pm for a special viewing party for Episode 1 at the SEIU Healthcare Illinois Office. RSVP and get more details.

Hard Earned, produced by the Emmy and Peabody-winning documentary production team behind films such as Hoop Dreams, Mapping Stem Cell Research: Terra Incognita, In the Family, and As Goes Janesville, is a provocative and in-depth look at the lives of five working-class American families.

In six one-hour episodes, Hard Earned follows the families both at work and at home, as they juggle the rising costs of housing, education, food, medical bills and more – all while working low-wage jobs. As widening economic inequality and the wealth gap continue to increase in the U.S., can these lower-income families get ahead? How are wage stagnation, student loan debt and demographic shifts in the workforce contributing to financial instability for many Americans?

In Evergreen Park, Illinois – a suburb of Chicago – we meet 50-year-old Emilia Stancati, who works full-time as a waitress at a downtown restaurant chain after losing her higher-paying union construction job. “When you ask for what would be my dream, I don’t have one,” she says. “My dream would be to have weekends off.” She lives off credit cards when she doesn’t make enough money to support herself and works to re-invent herself professionally one more time.

In Chicago, 24-year-old Takita Akins and her boyfriend, 23-year-old De’Jaun “DJ” Jackson, are raising two children and working hourly jobs at Walgreens. “I love my job but the pay is not good,” Akins says. “Right now, we’re living paycheck to paycheck.” Jackson says, “I can’t get down [about money] because my family is looking at me.” DJ joins the national “Fight for 15” movement in the hopes that organizing with his co-workers can lead to changes for all low-wage workers.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C., 32-year-old Jose Merino works as a clerical worker after serving two tours in Iraq. “When I [first] came back, I couldn’t find a job anywhere,” Merino says. He lives with his young son and his girlfriend, 27-year-old high school counselor Elizabeth Bonta. “You always hear about the rich and famous, and then you hear about the complete and utter opposite,” she says. “But you never hear about people that have credit card debt, three kids they’re putting through college or living with a stepson and modifying their life. That, I think, is the American story.” In spite of the struggle, Merino and Bonta take a shot at the American dream of home ownership in an effort to give their son his own bedroom.

In Silicon Valley, CA, 20-year-old Mexican-American Hilton Kennedy III juggles multiple jobs, including his work in the corporate cafeteria at Google’s Mountain View campus, yet he and his pregnant girlfriend, 18-year-old Diana Gonzalez, can only afford to live in a garage in a Silicon Valley trailer park that they share with Diana’s cousin. “The situation in Tijuana is very difficult, and in the U.S. I have the opportunity to be more,” he says. Kennedy and Gonzalez work to move out of the garage and move up at work, all while navigating a personal tragedy.

In Milwaukee, WI, 66-year-old Percy Evans and his wife Beverly Evans (65) contend with filing for bankruptcy and avoiding foreclosure on their home, after having lost the middle-class salary jobs they had worked for many years. Now they work multiple low-paying jobs, contend with health issues, plan for a retirement that looks very different from what they had anticipated, and try to hold onto their position as the cornerstone of their large family.

"Hard Earned reflects Al Jazeera America’s commitment to covering under-reported stories and provocative themes,” said Kim Bondy, Senior Vice President of Programs, Al Jazeera America. “We rarely see true depictions of income inequality in the media. This character-driven series will hit home with many American families struggling to make ends meet.”

“In Hard Earned viewers will see stories they can connect to immediately,” says series executive producer and Kartemquin Executive Director Justine Nagan. “Whether you have a grandparent who is struggling to make it on her social security income, or a familiar face you interact with every week in your local drugstore, these are families that we all know. The series explores the impact of low-wage jobs on every aspect of a family’s life, as well as the impact on our communities and our country.”

Kartemquin, renowned “for finding compelling stories and characters to both humanize social issues and foster a richer appreciation for them,” ( is a venerable Emmy and Peabody-winning documentary production collective, recently selected for Realscreen’s Global 100 listing of the world’s most influential nonfiction producers. Production on the series began in 2013, before the full launch of Al Jazeera America.

The Hard Earned series producer is Maggie Bowman, directors are Katy Chevigny, Maria Finitzo, Ruth Leitman, Brad Lichtenstein, and Joanna Rudnick, with series editors & co-directors Liz Kaar and David E. Simpson, and executive producers Steve James, Justine Nagan, and Gordon Quinn.

Hard Earned features an original theme song, “Something to Believe In” by Grammy-nominated recording artist Aloe Blacc.

Kartemquin’s previous multi-part series, The New Americans, a seven-hour series on immigration produced for PBS in 2004, was an International Documentary Association award-winner for Best Limited Series.

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View our press release as a word document.
Read an interview with Hard Earned Series Producer Maggie Bowman.