Watch “Two American Families” Now


This morning I was planning on writing about “This Town,” a new book on Washington, DC, written by a writer named Mark Leibovich, but last night I got distracted and spent 90 minutes to watch “Two American families”, a “Frontline” documentary broadcast on the local PBS affiliate. It’s one of the best and most heartbreaking documentaries I’ve seen this year. This is not a tragedy or a disaster. It was not “hard to watch” because it was a particularly horrific moment in human history or an unspeakable monstrous act – a hurricane or a war or even a specific crime committed. by specific people – but because it just turned out to be to document the lives of some struggling working-class families, starting soon after the ground collapsed under America’s lower middle class and ending now, when there is clearly no hope of a return to economic security.

Bill Moyers began following the lives of two Milwaukee families, the Stanley and the Neumann, in 1992, when they were the subject of a documentary titled “Minimum Wage: The New Economy”. In the 1980s, both families were supported by unionized jobs in the manufacturing sector. Those jobs simply disappeared when we first met the Neumanns – Terry and Tony, a white couple – and the Stanley – Jackie and Claude, black – in 1991. Moyers followed the families with additional documentaries in 1995 and 2000’s “Two American Families” combines footage shot throughout the ’90s with follow-up material shot last year.

To use the regrettable cliché, the two families “played by the rules”. They are in fact superhumanly devoted to the rules. They both go to church – Claude is actually a pastor – and they hate the idea of ​​going out of work and they take any available jobs and the kids are boy scouts and their parents are dedicated to their education. Families are so virtuous, so imbued with the great American work ethic, that it’s practically unfair to other struggling Americans; families who screw up deserve our sympathy, as well as the support of a social safety net. Corn as George Packer wrote earlier this month, the film serves as a rebuke to right-wing social critics like the loathsome Charles Murray, “who believe that the decline of the American working class stems from a collapse of moral values, social capital, personal responsibility and traditional authority … “These people are brimming with personal responsibility.

Here is a very brief recap of the documentary / America since 1991: Tony Neumann lost his job at Briggs and Stratton shortly after the family bought a beautiful but modest house in Milwaukee. (“But it’s either rent for the rest of your life or it’s own,” Terry says.) In 1991, they were behind on their mortgage payments. At the end of the documentary, in 2012, the house, where the family had lived for 24 years, was foreclosed: JPMorgan Chase asks Terry $ 124,000 to stay in his house, then sells it for $ 38,000. The Neumanns have spent those 24 years working, nonstop, but always for insufficient wages to stay afloat.

The 90s for families are a series of crappy, low-paying jobs and pervasive anxiety. In 1991, Claude Stanley embarked on manual labor for a pittance while Jackie obtained his real estate permit. (“I can’t sell the suburbs here,” she says. “I can’t sell the wealthier neighborhoods. But they’ll call me downtown.”) We attend President Bill’s inauguration. Clinton with the Stanley. Young Claude Jr. is optimistic: “I guess in the next four years we might have some openings, and I guess you might not have to film that many people,” he says. His older brother Keith, who remembers Reagan, is more cynical, but Keith becomes the first member of the family to graduate from high school and he even goes to college, thanks to Jackie who made two real estate deals. . But the family still needs a $ 1,000 advance on a new credit card, at 18% interest, to keep Keith in school. “It’s going to tide me over until I can get the miracle,” Jackie said. In 1998, the Stanleys had medical bills of $ 30,000 that they couldn’t afford, and the rest of Stanley’s kids couldn’t go to college. Klaudale joins the Navy. Keith has two jobs and is still forced to pay for his studies with credit cards at usurious interest rates.

And that was during the good years. The viewer knows, when the documentary goes from 1999 to 2012, that these skipped years have not been kind for families like these. And so we find Claude Stanley, at the age of 60, occupying two jobs – manual labor, always – for $ 26,000 plus fringe benefits. (He’s one of those lazy, overpaid public servants that you hear a lot about.) He’s obviously exhausted, but he doesn’t quite want to admit it. Retirement is not really a realistic scenario. The Neumanns are divorced and Terry is indeed homeless, working part-time for next to nothing. She saves money to buy a place in a trailer park. Tony is no longer willing to cooperate with the filmmakers.

Children mostly do odd jobs. Keith Stanley is the closest film to a true success story, as an assistant to a Milwaukee city councilor. He has a college degree and a good job. He is smart and insightful and will hopefully become something of a civil servant and advocate for people like those who raised him. Klaudale is a military contractor working in Afghanistan. Adam Neumann, Terry and Tony’s son, living salary to salary and expecting his second child, says, “They always call me middle class but I don’t see it. Terry Neumann sums it up: “We’re just going to work until we collapse and collapse and die.

The film does not say so – it mainly tells the story of these families – but all of these people are the victims not only of “the economy” but of a series of specific political decisions made over the past decades. , by people very similar to those whose trivial and cloistered life is documented in “This City”. So I hope some of these people watched it last night, or catch up today. (I also hope WGBH administrator David Koch was watching, but who knows what sort of lesson he would take from it.) It’s hard not to count your blessings after watching “Two American Families.” I know I have my very, very good job partly because a few people seem to enjoy my Donald Trump jokes, but mostly because of a series of incredibly lucky breaks. You and your family may never have been in danger of falling into poverty, before or after the “Great Recession,” but “Two American Families” shows quite convincingly that if you weren’t born in the 1%, and some things had gone wrong, there wouldn’t have been any digging for you no matter how hard you worked or for how long. The film is maddening.

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