The title above is that of a Frontline documentary by the irrepressible Bill Moyers that aired last night, July 9, 2013. Needless to say, it’s a marvelous piece of work—one that Moyers and his colleague Kathleen Hughes started all the way back in 1991 when the unraveling of America’s industrial base was going into high gear. It follows two Milwaukee families—one white, one black, both with several children and houses of their own—as they move from fairly secure lower-middle class existence to near poverty after the closing of factories and then several more economic shocks culminating in the financial meltdown of 2008. In both cases, the male of the house started with a job in the manufacturing sector that once made Milwaukee a prosperous industrial city. The comparison with any number of cities in both the Midwest and the Northeast and even the South is quite obvious. Like Detroit, like Bridgeport CT where I grew up, the busy factories in these towns supported countless families in the period after World War II, providing jobs with good benefits and wages that allowed a single, usually male worker to support his family, pay a mortgage, send his children to school and college, and save for retirement. Since then, under Ronald Reagan and the conservative assault on government, unions, and the social safety net created by Democrats like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, those jobs have withered away. Corporations have been allowed to take their factories to countries like China or Bangladesh or Mexico where labor costs are a fraction of American costs. The result has been an American landscape littered with boarded-up factories, and increasingly since 2008, boarded-up houses whose one-time occupants can no longer afford the mortgages or the upkeep of neighborhoods going to seed.
Moyers takes each family in turn and shows its relative peace and prosperity in 1991. These families are not wealthy, by any means, but both live in tidy neighborhoods and both have men who work in apparently secure factory jobs. The white guy, Tony Neumann, works as a machinist in the Briggs & Stratton factory making what turns out to be the princely sum of $18 per hour, plus benefits. His wife Terry can be a stay-at-home mom, taking care of their two, then three children. On the strength of the Briggs & Stratton job, they buy a house, with a mortgage of $820 a month, and a plastic backyard pool. The African American Stanleys appear similarly prosperous at first, with Claude working a good job at the A.O. Smith factory. They have five children and Claude doubles as a preacher, then a pastor at his own tiny church. This faith sustains him and his family through very hard times, and also gives the Stanleys what appears to be a bit more of a social connection than the Neumanns—though the Neumanns are also religious, being devout Catholics.
But even before the 1990s, things begin to go sour for both families. Both men lose their good factory jobs when their factories depart for cheaper climes. Though this is a major blow, both remain positive and apply for what will be lesser jobs, hoping that something will replace the lost income. It turns out to be a vain hope: one of the points made by the documentary is that good factory jobs are leaving Milwaukee and elsewhere in the United States forever. Tony goes out right away and applies for jobs at places like Wal-Mart, Sam’s, McDonald’s and other ‘big box’ horrors, all offering less than $6 per hour. It is a huge comedown from the $18 he was making, but he keeps doing it, keeps trying to retrain himself for something a little better. Each time he finds a promising job, however, that too falls through when the factory or business closes. Knowing that the wolf is at the door (the wolf being the bank that keeps demanding the now-in-arrears mortgage payment), Kathy tries at first to sell skin-care products, something she can do from home. She ends up losing money on the venture and gives it up. She is forced to go to food banks to keep her family fed. The scene is much the same for the Stanleys. Having lost his good job, Claude takes a job waterproofing basements for less than $7/hour, not even half what he was making. It is an exhausting, grimy job but he does it with energy and eventually becomes foreman for a little more money. But with five kids to support, the Stanleys have the same trouble making the mortgage payments as the Neumanns. So Jackie, who had also worked at Briggs, finds a job selling real estate—she had been studying it even while working at Briggs when she saw the handwriting on the wall. Unable to sell in other areas of the city because of her color, she still sells a house every now and then and manages to keep her family barely above water. But then Claude contracts a lung disease and ends up in the hospital for several weeks, with a bill of over $30,000. Buoyed by faith, they manage to keep going, with the sons starting their own lawn-care service, and Claude working on a garbage truck. And on the strength of their combined drive, they even manage to send their eldest son, Keith, to Alabama State College where he somehow—borrowing on credit cards and every other means—manages to graduate. This sets them a bit apart, for at the end of the film, we see Keith having managed to find a good job working with a city councilman, owning his own house, and even supporting one of his sister’s sons. But having seen the struggle his parents went and still go through, he has refrained from marriage, fearing he might not be able to afford children of his own.
As to the Neumanns, their trajectory is much more severe. Beaten down by constant worry, Tony and Kathy finally split into divorce. By this time, their children are grown but each one seems headed for the same fate, struggling with the low-wage jobs that now dominate Milwaukee’s economy—if it can be called that. Kathy is finally unable to pay her mortgage, and despite her pleas with the bank for a modification, lands in foreclosure. The most agonizing moment is when she returns to the house that once rang with the noise of her family, now owned by an Asian couple who purchased it in foreclosure for around $40,000. Some of her last words are poignant, even tragic, acknowledging that she doesn’t think she’ll ever get back to where she was, even though she has undergone training and become an aide in a nursing facility, working the overnight shift. Salary, $11.50 an hour, plus benefits. She lives in the house of a friend, having crashed with relatives on and off since the foreclosure, the only dream she has left that of being able to buy a place in a trailer park. When asked by Moyers if she thought she’d ever be secure, she said she doubted it, given the way the economy was going. What then? asked Moyers. Just keep going, she said:
“We’ll just work until we collapse and keel over and die.”
Two American Families packs a powerful punch—at least for those who can imagine the same thing happening to them. Because that is its radical message: the American Dream—at least as it has always been touted to average Americans, that with hard work, anyone can succeed—is dead. Has been dead for quite some time. For as the financiers and banksters and CEOs and hucksters consume (or perhaps one should say “steal”) an ever greater portion of the national wealth, average Americans like the Neumanns and the Stanleys are left with the indigestible crumbs of low-wage slavery. Through no fault of their own—rather through the greed of corporatists and militarists and their precious globalization—the jobs they could once count on have disappeared. Gone for good. Without the means to a good college education, without the communal power needed to counter the satanic power of capital, they are condemned to lives of anguish, poverty, humiliation, and self-blame. And unless something drastic is done, and quickly, more and more Americans, even those who manage to borrow and work their way through college with ever mounting debts, are sure to join them.