In the latest installation of social commentary from journalist Bill Moyers, PBS Frontline traces two American families – the Stanleys of Central City and the Neumanns of Milwaukee, Wisconsin – over twenty-two years and varying degrees of poverty. The documentary reveals both families’ worsening economic situations after the loss of well-paying unionized factory jobs, increasingly typical of many American cities during the 1990s. As the film progresses, the families’ contrasting experiences of American poverty along the way generate a conversation of basic impediments to upward mobility for the American middle class.
Key structures at play – alongside the greatest economic downturn in recent history – emerge in this documentary to depict profound challenges to maintaining financial stability in a middle class household. The flight of manufacturing industries to cheaper labor in Southern right-to-work states or worldwide serves only as the starting point for these two families’ economic descent. The remainder of the film reveals how a confluence of other factors makes upward mobility impossible for the Stanleys and Neumanns. Among them: absence of low-income health care benefits, racist housing policies, the foreclosure crisis, credit-dependence, unemployment and the increasingly elusive American Dream preclude these two families from obtaining security and retaining wealth.
Economic Downturn, Upturn, and Crisis
The fluctuations of the American economy centrally dictate the circumstances of these two families. Nearly a decade after the loss of their factory jobs, both the Stanleys and Neumanns exhibited excitement at President Bill Clinton’s assertion of economic recovery under his leadership. However, as the documentary asserts, these families barely survive even under the nationwide prosperity of Clinton’s presidency, with various members in each family jumping from one low-wage job to the next, never approaching wages as high or positions as stable as those previously held, and with little hope for retirement or medical benefits. The loss of more than 40,000 well-paying jobs at major factories in Milwaukee, and likewise in cities nationwide by the American middle class, proved detrimental for each family.
Even in the improving economic environment of the mid 1990s, many middle-class American workers did not find an adequate supply of well-paying work. For the Neumanns and Stanleys, their long list of jobs never provided wages high enough to allow savings or peace of mind to hold the family over in times of financial stress. In supporting her son Keith, the family’s first high school graduate and college student, Jackie Stanley relied on a cash advance from credit to fund tuition at Alabama State, reflecting a growing trend of credit dependence among many low to middle class families in this decade. If this wasn’t enough, the setbacks imposed by medical emergency pushed these two families beyond their threshold. With no medical benefits to claim from his job in basement proofing, George Stanley’s two-month long hospitalization from a lung infection cost him $30,000, two months of lost pay, and any chance of saving for tuition for another one of his children.
Housing, Homelessness and Hunger
The foreclosure crisis amidst the recession of 2008 further pushed families off the edge. Sixteen thousand houses foreclosed in Milwaukee alone in 2011, with Terri Neumann’s home among those seized and resold by her bank for just $30,000. Wages since the crisis have failed to improve conditions for renters as well as homeowners; according to one study by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the average U.S. household must earn at least $18.44 an hour to afford a two bedroom apartment and meet basic subsistence needs, more than double the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. The absence of decent living wages – or wages high enough to make decent living affordable – prompted both families to rely on multiple jobs for parents and children alike. The impossibility of affording housing in the absence of a living wage accompanies the ever present trend of gentrification, replacing the already limited stock of affordable housing with upscale residential areas.
Perhaps most poignantly, Terri Neumann resented the vulnerability of her family’s poverty, and resultant need to reach out for help. Joining the ranks of the millions of Americans relying on food stamps for survival, Terry Neumann exhibited anxiety over the stigmas associated with national programs intended for low-income Americans:
“It really bothers us that we have to depend on other people. I just want to get up in the morning, drive the car to get the groceries, and have a normal life again.”
This stigma has prevailed, even as the number of Americans relying on food stamps increased from 38 million to 49 million in 2010. Many of these recipients were families with jobs and earnings, while 49 percent of the program’s participants were children. The Stanley’s experience of poverty resonated with the issue of hunger:
“Bill, when they wanna eat, they wanna eat. They don’t want to do like us and make excuses why you’re not hungry.”
A Matter of Light and Gas
The vivid portrayal of these two families’ struggles reflects the grim reality of the American middle class. Three of George and Jackie Stanley’s children started their own lawn care business to help pay the bills, when their parents’ combined jobs couldn’t. To this we must ask ourselves, what recourse does a hardworking family confined to making bare bones wages have? Some municipalities are currently in heated dialogue over the rights to and economic implications of a required living wage. For the Neumanns and the Stanleys however, the struggle goes beyond politics; it affects their day to day living needs. As one of Jackie Stanley’s children poignantly asserted, the daily struggle to make ends meet is, “A matter of…not life and death, but of light and gas.” For these families, light and gas accompany food and shelter as the most essential – and vulnerable – needs at stake for the declining American middle class. Without wages high enough to make living affordable however, there is no sure way to protect them.
-By Elaine MacPherson, NLCHP Communications Intern
 “We began the new century with over 20 million new jobs, fastest economic growth, lowest unemployment in over thirty years – we have built a new economy,” William J. Clinton: “Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union,” January 27, 2000. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=58708.
“Program Data: Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program”, United States Department of Agriculture http://www.fns.usda.gov/pd/34SNAPmonthly.htm. ; “Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program Participation Rates: FY 2010” United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, Office of Research and Analysis, http://www.fns.usda.gov/ORA/menu/Published/SNAP/FILES/Participation/Trends2010.pdf.