Before there was the Great Recession, the foreclosure crisis and the obscene economic divide that we see today, there was a gathering storm.
Bill Moyers began to capture it in 1991, documenting two families in Milwaukee—the Neumans and the Stanleys—as they strived to attain the American Dream: a measure of economic security and a better life for their kids.
Moyers followed their stories for the next twenty-two years, and tonight on Frontline, viewers will see just how the two families fared through today.
Produced by filmmakers Tom Casciato and Kathleen Hughes, Two American Families is the third must-see documentary in the past year—along with American Winter and A Place at the Table— about how “regular folks” are surviving in today’s economy. Watch it, and if your blood isn’t boiling by the end, check your pulse.
As Moyers narrates, the Neumans and Stanleys are what his grandmother would have called “the salt of the earth.” They are churchgoers, extremely hard workers and devoted parents, who struggle every day to “secure a foothold in the middle class.”
These are Americans who clearly play by the proverbial rules, and we see just as clearly that the rules don’t count for much if the game is rigged.
The struggles for both families begin in the early 1990s when good jobs are being shipped overseas or lost to non-union towns where wages are low. Tony Neuman loses his job with engine maker Briggs and Stratton where he was earning $18 an hour and good benefits. He searches for new work—restaurants, grocery stores, big box stores, hardware stores—they all pay less than $6 an hour.
“Little do they know that I need to live also,” says Tony.
He accepts a job at a non-union factory making engine parts on the night shift. He earns $8.25 an hour, no benefits. He lacks sleep and is irritable, and barely sees his wife, Terry, or their three children. Terry is forced to give up her work as a stay-at-home mother, taking a series of low-wage, part-time jobs. The Neumans struggle to pay the mortgage, one of their sons begins having trouble in school and all of the children miss the presence of their father.
“Our marriage is really on the rocks,” Tony reveals.
While the Stanleys’s marriage seems to be holding up—“We look on each other for our strength. Some days she has bad days, some days I have bad days,” Claude says—they are in a similar boat to the Neumans. Jackie also loses her job on the motor line with Briggs and Stratton, and Claude loses his assembly line job with the manufacturer AO Smith. Jackie goes into real estate and Claude takes a job waterproofing basements for $7 an hour—they bring home half of the pay they used to. Jackie tries to hide the hardship from their five children, living by the motto “fake it ‘til you make it.”
But you can’t hide a formerly secure, professional neighborhood that begins to come apart at the seams: gang violence, threats, an uncle murdered by an intruder just blocks away, abandoned homes. As their eldest son, Keith, excels in high school, earning a 3.5, he asks his Mom, “What’s the use? What does it matter?”
The question seems prescient when, in 1995, Keith is the first male on either side of his family to graduate high school. He wants to attend Alabama State University. The only way he is able to do so is by Jackie closing two real estate deals the day before he leaves, Keith working two jobs and receiving financial aid, and incurring major credit card debt.
“God came through,” says Jackie.
“Most people, when they pray, expect God to give them a miracle,” says Moyers. “What you got was a thousand-dollar credit with an 18 percent interest rate.”
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“But it’ll tide me over until I can get the miracle,” says Jackie.
Moyers notes that in the 1990s credit card debt for the average family increased by 53 percent; 184 percent for low-income families. There was no miracle for the Stanleys, just ever-increasing credit card debt for Keith.
Meanwhile, Terry’s part-time work proves insufficient so she takes on full-time work as “a driver and a guard [and] a messenger” for $7.25 an hour. But Terry and Tony worry that their children are now unsupervised like most kids in the neighborhood. They see an increase in violence and reckless behavior and worry that their own children will get caught up in it.
“I’ve tried to teach them right from wrong,” says Terry. “And I’m just hoping that they will carry these values through all of this. I hope they’ve learned…how difficult it is and how everybody needs to make sacrifices—including them.”
Terry’s shifts are unpredictable—she is on call to report to work on two hours notice. She and Tony barely see each other and the family enters therapy.
Meanwhile, the Stanleys discover that the health benefits Claude had weren’t so beneficial—a serious lung infection results in $30,000 in unpaid medical bills. College is no longer an option for their other children.
As the 1990s come to a close, Moyers notes that “despite all the hard work, these two American families had barely survived one of the most prosperous decades in our history.”
When he returns to them in 2013, Moyers finds that three of the four adults feel like failures, including Tony, who declines to be interviewed. He and Terry eventually lost their home—JPMorgan Chase demanded $124,000, foreclosed and then sold it for $38,000. Terry, now 49, lost a warehouse job, retrained to become a home health care aide and nurse’s assistant, and is now working part-time as a caregiver for a poverty wage. Claude is nearly 60 and works two jobs—collecting garbage and also maintaining the grounds along boulevards. He is a member of a public union and earns $26,000 and benefits.
Claude doesn’t feel like a failure, but even as he maintains his bedrock faith and is a minister at a church—“Still praise the lord, I still believe there’s something for us”—he’s also angry.
“You can’t stay on a job long enough to retire,” he says. “You know every job I have I work seven years, the place close down, you work somewhere else for another five years, they lay you off, they shut down. All the years I’ve been working, I could’ve retired. Right now.”
Keith marvels at his father’s work ethic and the values his parents instilled in him and his siblings. He has a good job at City Hall and also works nights and weekends as a videographer. But he is delaying marriage and a family.
“There’s been too many struggles I saw,” he says. “And for me, it’s like, ‘Can I make that sacrifice?’”
The prospects for the other Stanley and Neuman children, now grown, are decidedly more mixed.
“The way the economy is going now, I don’t think anybody is going to be financially secure,” says Terry. “And we’ll just work until we collapse and keel over and die.”
It would be great if this were simply hyperbole. But for too many Americans it is now the cold, hard truth—economic security isn’t an attainable dream, it’s a tantalizing fantasy forever out of reach.