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The Nation

This Week in Poverty: American Winter

Since the beginning of the Great Recession, I’ve been waiting for a documentary to make the case that low-income people and the middle class are now in the same boat—that old distinctions people created to divide them are obsolete, with so many people living near poverty, or an illness, lost job, or disaster away from poverty.

A hundred and six million Americans, or more than one in three, now live below twice the poverty line—on less than $36,000 for a family of three, forced to make choices between basic necessities like food, housing, healthcare and education, and with little to no savings to help through tough times; wealth is increasingly concentrated, with the richest 1 percent now possessing 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. Certainly the numbers suggest a convergence of interests among the poor and non-rich.

Now, finally, a movie has arrived that shows the precariousness of the US economy for the majority of Americans, refusing to distinguish between a deserving and non-deserving poor: American Winter.

Filmed over the winter of 2011–12 in Portland, Oregon, the documentary tells the stories of eight families, showing the human costs of a frayed safety net and a proliferation of low-wage work. Emmy Award–winning filmmakers Joe and Harry Gantz, creators of HBO’s Taxicab Confessions, worked with the nonprofit organization 211info in Portland, monitoring calls from distressed families who were turning to the emergency hotline in search of help. They then followed the stories of some of these callers over many months.

Most of these families never imagined they would be in the situation they suddenly find themselves in, needing support to get through a tough time, and finding that that support just isn’t there: a husband loses his job, he and his wife try to support their three kids on her minimum-wage work, losing heat and electricity in the dead of winter in order to pay the mortgage; a 50-year-old accountant is laid off and struggling to care for his 10-year-old son who has Down Syndrome, now faces the loss of his ranch and sole asset to provide for his son’s future; a husband loses his $22-per-hour job, and his wife and their two sons turn to a women’s shelter for assistance; a college-educated woman is laid off and so she sells scrap metal and donates plasma to help support her family of five—even after she finds minimum-wage work; a woman’s husband dies, and she and her 11-year-old son can’t keep their home—they sleep in a garage and in their car before ending up in a shelter; another mother has to take three months off of work to care for her daughter who is hospitalized with a stomach condition—she’s stuck with a $49,000 bill that insurance won’t cover.

“Forget the dreams, how do we make it to tomorrow?” says a father. Laid off from the credit branch of a car company, he and his wife lose their home to foreclosure and now struggle to provide their kids with the basics. “Tomorrow’s the dream. This dinner is the dream. You can turn the water on, turn the lights on—that’s a dream.”

Woven into the film are interviews with local economic experts, policy analysts, religious leaders and social workers, all of whom provide context for the families’ stories.

“If capitalism is not regulated or checked, there is a harsh logic and it will always seek out the lowest costs, highest return, which is why we have historically viewed government as a check and a balance on that,” says Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish. “Over the last quarter century, we have reduced regulations, degraded wages, cut back on health care, we’ve reduced taxes, and now people are more vulnerable…. We have a “one strike, and you’re out’ economy.”

As we now begin sequester cuts that will further strain supports to working families and families that are unable to work, this is a timely movie, to say the least.

I’m very pleased to be moderating a great panel following a screening of the film at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) next Thursday. The panel will include filmmakers Joe and Harry Gantz; Diedre and Jalean, a family featured in the film; Elaine Weiss, national coordinator of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education; Algernon Austin, director of the Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy at EPI; and Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel University School of Public Health. Senators Sherrod Brown and Jeff Merkley have also been invited.

You can find the details and RSVP for the event here.


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“Tax loopholes for corporate Jets or Investments in Jobs and Education?”

That’s the question posed in a terrific infographic by Melissa Boteach, director of the Half in Ten Campaign and the Poverty and Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress. Boteach has a real knack for showing the values behind Congressional budget decisions. Check this out:

Recognized: Hunger Free Vermont

The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) has awarded the Dr. Raymond Wheeler/ Senator Paul Wellstone Anti-Hunger Advocacy Leadership Award to Hunger Free Vermont. FRAC presents the award annually to an advocate who has demonstrated outstanding leadership in the fight against hunger.

Hunger Free Vermont has made key contributions toward ending food insecurity among children, adults, and seniors in their state. Thanks in part to the work of this organization, Vermont is in the top ten states for participation among low-income children in school breakfast and summer meal programs, and is one of the best states for enrolling eligible citizens in the SNAP program.

Hunger Free Vermont has also launched creative new initiatives such as an accredited online course for physicians, nurses and clinical staff to learn patient screening techniques for hunger and malnutrition.

“Not only does Hunger Free Vermont work effectively within the state to create change, but the organization also has made it a priority to mentor other anti-hunger organizations in New England and across the country,” said Jim Weill, president of FRAC

Hunger Free Vermont is now working with the Vermont legislature and Governor Peter Shumlin to make the state the first in the nation to offer free school meals to all low-income children.

Women and the Minimum Wage

This week, Senator Tom Harkin and Representative George Miller introduced The Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 that would raise the federal minimum wage from the current rate of $7.25 to $10.10 per hour by 2015, and index it to keep pace with inflation. The bill would also raise the minimum wage for tipped workers from $2.13 per hour, where it has been frozen since 1991, to 70 percent of the full minimum wage.

The National Women’s Law Center notes that two-thirds of adult minimum wage workers are women, and women are the majority of workers in the ten largest occupations paying less than $10.10 an hour:

Read more from This Week in Poverty here.

Greg Kaufmann

Greg Kaufmann

Greg Kaufmann is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Editor of

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