Watch "Two American Families" right now

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

Published July 10, 2013 2:00PM (EDT)

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.

By Alex Pareene

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

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