Profiles of Hard Earned characters

Looking at the adversity faced by the working-class people in six-part documentary series

Hard Earned follows five families around the country to find out what it takes to get by on 8, 10, or even 17 dollars an hour.

The series turns an intimate lens on a group of 21st century American dreamers. They fight against all odds to thrive, when it takes everything they have to simply survive. Here are their stories:

Hilton and Diana

Ages 20 and 18; Silicon Valley, California

Hilton Kennedy III works over 80 hours/week between his two jobs: washing dishes at the Google cafeteria and running the register at Sweet Tomatoes, a chain restaurant. He and his girlfriend, Diana Gonzalez, live in a garage in a trailer park with no heat or running water, which costs them $300/month. Diana is pregnant with twins and Hilton is working to save up for a one-bedroom apartment, which they expect will cost them $1200/month.

Hilton and Diana are among the Silicon Valley service workers, many of them immigrants, that provide food, cleaning, and security for the region’s booming technology economy, but find it difficult to afford living in the area themselves.

The series follows the couple as they navigate the challenges of life in a new country, healthcare, a possible promotion at one job, lack of opportunity and respect at another, two apartment moves within one month, a personal tragedy, and the changing shape of their own American dream.

Percy and Beverly

Ages 66 and 65; Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Percy and Beverly Evans have lived and worked their whole lives in Milwaukee —once a major center of Midwest manufacturing, now a city struggling to find its place in the new economy.

Percy and Bev met while working at a large social service agency, where they both earned middle-class salaries for 18 years. After the agency closed its doors in 2003, they both saw a dramatic decline in their incomes. Percy currently works nights as a janitor at a local mall, earning $8/hour. He spends his free time at a local senior center where his friendships and community network provide much needed moral support. Bev found work as a case manager for a state contractor, though at $15/hour it pays much less than her previous position.

They bought their home 15 years ago for $79,000, but they recently filed for bankruptcy to stave off the possibility of foreclosure. Percy and Bev are extremely close with their large extended family, but their reluctance to ask for help has prevented them from fully disclosing their financial situation to their children.

The series follows Percy and Bev as they struggle to hold onto their house, celebrate the families they have raised, contend with health issues, look for better-paying jobs, and plan for a retirement that looks much different from what they had anticipated.


Age 50; Evergreen Park, Illinois

Emilia Stancati emigrated from Italy as a child and started working in restaurants in Chicago as a young teenager. She currently waits tables six days a week in two different restaurants, earning a combined $300/week.

It’s a far cry from her days in the construction industry, when she earned $80,000/year and was able to buy a home, a car and her beloved Harley Davidson motorcycle. Construction work dried up in 2008, forcing Emilia to return to restaurant work, move in with her elderly father and rent out her house. She constantly looks for better jobs and hopes to one day move back into “the little dollhouse,” as her friends used to call it. Emilia has been sober for 23 years and draws on the strength of her own recovery from drug and alcohol abuse as she figures out her next move.

The series follows Emilia as she tries to re-invent herself one more time. She pounds the pavement, celebrates a milestone birthday, gains new skills, and explores the opportunity to turn a dark part of her past into a new chapter for her future.

DJ and Takita

Ages 23 and 24; Chicago, Illinois

De’Jaun “DJ” Jackson and Takita Akins balance their $10.50/hour jobs at Walgreens with the busy life of raising two young children in one of the nation’s largest cities. DJ works in the wine and spirits departments at the chain’s flagship store downtown while Takita sells cosmetics at a smaller location—a challenge she enjoys. “Everyone used to tease me when I was younger,” she smiles. “I never wore fingernail polish and I never did the eye shadow, because I was raised by my dad.”

But the difficulties of raising their family on their small paychecks starts to weigh the couple down and outspoken DJ gets involved with the “Fight for 15” campaign to raise wages for retail and fast food workers to $15/hour. Takita supports his passion but fears repercussions against him at work for his activism. She knows they can’t afford for one of them to lose a job.

The series follows this young family as they combine idealism, faith, perseverance and laughter to find a better future for themselves and their children. Together with the help of their extended family, DJ and Takita focus on one bus ride, one shift, one homework assignment, and one bill at a time to make it work.

Jose and Elizabeth

Ages 32 and 27; Montgomery County, Maryland

After years of unemployment following his Army service in Iraq, Jose Merino recently found a job as a clerical worker, which he squeezes in around his final semester of classes at a community college. He works the 5pm-1am shift, allowing him a couple of hours of after-school time with his young son Ayden before he heads to work each evening. His girlfriend, Elizabeth Bonta, was the first in her family to go to college and works as a guidance counselor at a DC-area high school. She came into Jose’s life a couple years ago and now shares parenting responsibilities for Ayden.

Jose and Elizabeth would love to stay in Montgomery County — just outside Washington, DC — where they were both born and raised. But with the cost of living 30 percent higher than the national average, the county is a tough place to get ahead. Jose, Ayden, and Elizabeth alternate between living in their parents’ basements, tag-teaming childcare around their opposite work schedules. Elizabeth, burdened by student loan debt from her master’s degree, pays her aging parents’ mortgage, but would like to find a way for all of them to move into a place where Ayden can have his own room.

The series follows the couple as they navigate the ups and downs of home-buying, a developing relationship, and familial responsibilities. As first-generation Americans, Jose and Elizabeth are ready to fight for their foothold in the middle class.

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