Hard work is no longer enough to sustain the American Dream for Diedre Melson, John Cox and Pamela Thatcher. Subjects of the HBO documentary film “American Winter,” all three believed a desire for employment and a strong work ethic would sustain a middle-class lifestyle, yet they have struggled to keep their families above the poverty line.
“American Winter” follows the lives of eight Portland, Oregon families as they struggle with unemployment, health challenges, evictions and homelessness, documenting the reality of growing poverty in America. At the invitation of their Senator, Jeff Merkley (D-OR), the three adults testified on June 6th before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs’ Subcommittee on Economic Policy, in a hearing entitled “State of the American Dream: Economic Policy and the Future of the Middle Class.” By sharing their personal experiences following the 2008 recession and housing crisis, the three painted a vivid picture of the declining middle-class.
Diedre Melson, despite having a full time job that pays almost six dollars above the national minimum wage, needs the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to feed her four children. “We are the working poor. On a daily basis we go to work and work a full time schedule yet fall short on basic necessities…I depend on SNAP to help feed my family – $13 an hour simply isn’t enough to support a family of five,” she said. Having started working at age 13, Melson used to believe that if she “did everything right – worked hard, got an education, planned for the future – [she] would make it” — but she is still struggling, and collects sells scrap metal and donates her plasma to make ends meet.
Married mother of two Pam Thatcher, like many Americans, believed that social welfare programs like SNAP bred abuse, until her husband lost his job and her family had to rely on those same services to keep her family afloat. “To be honest, I used to think it was easy for people who depended on government programs. No work and free food…Now I know there is a different story,” she shared. “Something has gone wrong when hardworking people are worried about how to feed their families. Something has gone wrong when it feels like there is no longer any hope for middle class families, and instead of investing in programs that will help families get back on their feet, our elected officials are making cuts.”
John Cox is the hardworking single father of a 12 year-old boy, Geral, who has Down’s Syndrome. In ‘American Winter,’ we see hear John say, ‘I’ve been working since I was 10, 12 years old. Anyone worth their soul wants to work. I’ll scrub toilets; I’m not above doing any kind of work.’ Testifying before the subcommittee, Cox shared that he is now three years out of work and questioning his “father’s famous words: ‘Take care of your job and the job will take care of you.’”
Following Melson, Cox and Thatcher’s testimonies were those of public policy experts. Venture capitalist Nick Hanauer emphasized that it is middle-class consumers, rather than the big business, that drive a capitalist economy. ‘Prosperity in capitalist economies never trickles down the top. Prosperity is built from the middle out,’ Hanauer said. What leads to more employment is a “‘circle of life’-like feedback loop between customers and businesses. And only consumers can set in motion this virtuous cycle of increasing demand and hiring.’ Hanauer advocated for raising the minimum wage to $15 and raising taxes on the super-rich. Considering the plight of the middle-class described by Hanauer, social services like SNAP are essential because they help spur economic growth by lifting Americans out of poverty.
On May 6th, the Law Center, along with more than 100 other nonprofit advocacy organizations, signed a letter to Congress discussing the economic and social benefits of programs like SNAP. The letter states SNAP’s success in lifting 3.9 million Americans above the poverty line in 2011, including 1.7 million children, and notes the program’s lasting effects among children, with positive economic and metabolic outcomes in adulthood. The letter also states that programs like SNAP can stimulate local economies. “Because SNAP benefits are so urgently needed, they are spent quickly—97 percent of benefits are redeemed by the end of the month of issuance. Moody’s Analytics and USDA estimate that the economic growth impact of SNAP ranges from $1.73 to $1.79 per $1 of SNAP benefits.”
For such individuals, the recent Senate and House proposals to cut SNAP’s budget by a total of $25.1 million over ten years as part of the 2013 Farm Bill are particularly devastating. Echoing a recent op-ed by Paul Krugman in the New York Times, Nick Hanauer elaborated in the film:
If you believe that wealth trickles down, then the only reason you would help a poor family is for charity…But there’s a far more persuasive argument that you simply have this problem that no one can afford to buy stuff anymore. Helping a poor family isn’t an act of charity. It’s converting a family that you have to support into a family that can buy things from your company. Helping the poor is what drives the economy.
In an ideal world, Melson’s full-time job would provide for her family, Cox would be able to find employment, and Thatcher would not have to worry about affording toilet paper. In an ideal world, a strong work ethic would be enough to achieve the American Dream. The ideal is not the reality, yet every day the National Law Center fights against the systemic problems of homelessness and poverty to make a transformational impact.
– Elissa Miller and Molly Soloff, Development and Communications Interns