Watch “Two American Families” right now

"Frontline's" new documentary offers a heartbreaking portrait of the new normal for the former middle class

Topics: Opening Shot, Poverty, Great Recession, PBS, Frontline, Documentaries, Labor, Bill Moyers, Television, Editor's Picks, ,

Watch "Two American Families" right now

This morning I intended to write about “This Town,” a new book about Washington, D.C., by a writer named Mark Leibovich, but last night I got distracted and spent 90 minutes watching “Two American Families,” a “Frontline” documentary that aired on the local PBS affiliate. It’s one of the best, and most heartbreaking, documentaries I’ve seen this year. It’s not about a tragedy or disaster. It wasn’t “hard to watch” because it was about a singularly awful moment in human history or one unspeakable monstrous act — a hurricane or war or even a specific crime committed by specific people — but because it just happened to document the lives of some struggling working-class families beginning at shortly after the point when the ground fell out from beneath the American lower middle class and ending now, when there’s clearly no hope for a return to economic security.

Bill Moyers began following the lives of two Milwaukee families, the Stanleys and the Neumanns, in 1992, when they were the subjects of a documentary called “Minimum Wages: The New Economy.” In the 1980s both families were supported by union manufacturing jobs. Those jobs have just disappeared when we first meet the Neumanns — Terry and Tony, a white couple — and the Stanleys — Jackie and Claude, black — in 1991. Moyers followed up with the families with additional documentaries in 1995 and 2000. “Two American Families” combines the footage shot throughout the ’90s with follow-up material shot last year.

To use the regrettable cliché, both families “played by the rules.” They are in fact superhumanly devoted to the rules. They both attend church — Claude is actually a minister — and they hate the idea of going on the dole and they take any available work and the kids are Boy Scouts and their parents are dedicated to their educations. The families are so virtuous, so imbued with the great American work ethic, that it is practically unfair to other struggling Americans; families that fuck up deserve our sympathy, and the support of a social safety net, as well. But as George Packer wrote earlier this month, the film serves as a rebuke to right-wing social critics like the execrable Charles Murray, “who believe that the decline of America’s working class comes from a collapse of moral values, social capital, personal responsibility, and traditional authority…” These people are overflowing with personal responsibility.



Here is a very brief summary of the documentary/America since 1991: Tony Neumann lost his job at Briggs and Stratton not long after the family bought a nice, but modest, Milwaukee home. (“But it’s either rent for the rest of your life or own,” says Terry.) In 1991 they’re behind on their mortgage payments. By the time the documentary ends, in 2012, the home, where the family lived for 24 years, has been foreclosed upon: JPMorgan Chase demands $124,000 from Terry to stay in her home and then sells it for $38,000. The Neumanns spent those 24 years working, nonstop, but always for wages insufficient to stay afloat.

The 1990s for the families are a series of crappy, low-paid jobs and ever-present anxiety. In 1991, Claude Stanley takes up manual labor at poverty wages while Jackie gets her real estate license. (“I can’t sell the suburbs here,” she says. “I can’t sell the most affluent areas. But they’ll call me for central city.”) We get to watch the inauguration of President Bill Clinton with the Stanleys. Young Claude Jr. is optimistic: “I guess in the next four years we might have openings, and I guess you might not have to film as many people,” he says. His older brother Keith, who remembers Reagan, is more cynical, but Keith goes on to become the first member of the family to graduate high school and he even goes on to college, thanks to Jackie closing two real estate deals. But the family still needs a $1,000 cash advance on a new credit card, at 18 percent interest, to keep Keith in school. “It’ll tide me over ’til I can get the miracle,” Jackie says. In 1998, the Stanleys have $30,000 in medical bills they can’t afford, and the rest of the Stanley kids are unable to go to college. Klaudale joins the Navy. Keith is working two jobs and still forced to pay for college on credit cards, at usurious interest rates.

And this was during the boom years. The viewer knows, when the documentary jumps from 1999 to 2012, that those skipped years were not kind to families like these. And so we find Claude Stanley working, at 60 years old, two jobs — manual labor, still — for $26,000 plus benefits. (He is one of those lazy, overpaid government employees we hear a lot about.) He is exhausted, obviously, but won’t quite admit it. Retirement is not really a realistic scenario. The Neumanns are divorced and Terry is effectively homeless, working part-time for next to nothing. She is saving money to buy a place in a trailer park. Tony is no longer willing to cooperate with the filmmakers.

The kids are mostly working odd jobs. Keith Stanley is the film’s closest thing to a genuine success story, as an aide to a Milwaukee alderman. He has a college degree and a good job. He’s smart and insightful and will hopefully go on to be some sort of public servant and advocate for people like the ones who raised him. Klaudale is a military contractor working in Afghanistan. Adam Neumann, Terry and Tony’s son, living paycheck to paycheck and expecting his second child, says, “they still call me middle class but I don’t see that.” Terry Neumann sums it up: “We’ll just work until we collapse and keel over and die.”

The film doesn’t say so — it primarily just tells the story of these families — but all of these people are the victims not just of “the economy” but of a series of specific policy decisions made, over the last few decades, by people very much like the ones whose trivial, cloistered lives are documented in “This Town.” So I hope some of those people watched it last night, or catch up with it today. (I also hope WGBH trustee David Koch was watching, but who knows what sort of lesson he’d take from it.) It’s hard not to count your blessings after watching “Two American Families.” I know that I have my very, very nice job in part because a few people seem to enjoy my jokes about Donald Trump but primarily because of a series of incredibly lucky breaks. It may be the case that you and your family were never in danger of falling into poverty, before or after the “Great Recession,” but “Two American Families” makes a pretty convincing case that if you weren’t born into the 1 percent, and a few things had gone wrong, there would’ve been no digging out for you, no matter how hard or for how long you worked. The film is infuriating.

Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.

    Domino's

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.

    Arby's/Facebook

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.

    KFC

    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.

    Pizzagamechangers.com

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.

    7-Eleven

    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...