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"Two American Families" Struggle in Worthwhile New Film

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Written by Nicole Woo   
Wednesday, 10 July 2013 15:41

Last night after watching my weekly fix of dancing contests on TV, I clicked around the channels and found myself engrossed in a new Frontline documentary hosted by Bill Moyers, "Two American Families."  It's a fascinating profile of two Milwaukee families, one black and one white, struggling to stay in the middle class over 20-plus years.  It brings to life -- with human faces and heartbreaking stories -- many of the statistics and analyses that CEPR produces about working people in this country.

My CEPR colleagues' frequent work work to define and examine the decline of "good" jobs in America came to mind throughout the film, as these families' stories mirror what the data indicates.  In CEPR's reports, a "good" job is defined as $19 per hour with employer-provided health insurance and an employer-sponsored retirement plan. When we first meet the families in the early 1990s, three of the four parents have lost "good" union jobs in manufacturing (close to $20 per hour and benefits).

The film documents their struggles over the next two decades to find similar jobs to replace the ones they lost, and after watching them all bounce from one insecure, low-wage job to another, it appears that none of the parents ever manage to do so.  They work days, nights, and multiple jobs -- usually manual labor -- and yet continually face financial hardship, even foreclosure and divorce.

By the end of the film, we get to see how the eight children across the two families have turned out as adults.  From the descriptions of their work situations, it appears that only one (the eldest son in the Stanley family) definitely has a "good" job -- $45,000 per year assisting the Milwaukee common council president. Two of his siblings may have "good" jobs (we don't learn enough to know for sure) -- a sister who's working at a county clerk's office in Virgina, and a brother who, after failing to find work in Milwaukee, is in Afghanistan working for a military contractor.

The other two Stanley family children, and all three Neumann family children -- all grown now, and many with children of their own -- have not been able to find "good" jobs.  One of Neumanns has come close, making $15 per hour plus benefits, after getting an associate degree and certifications to work in physician billing.

The film and its website (which features "The State of America's Middle Class in Eight Charts") are well worth a look. Not just for the real-life examples of what's happened to working Americans since the early 1990s, but also for just plain good filmmaking and storytelling.  While one might expect the New Yorker and Salon to highlight "Two American Families," even Hollywood's Variety gives it high praise:

[I]t does put faces on the statistics to which we can easily become inured, while not-so-subtly arguing the hardships facing many Americans are traceable to forces much larger than their own enterprise or sloth. And if that challenges the popular mantra that anybody who works hard can get ahead in the good ol U.S. of A., it’s precisely the kind of discussion quality journalism is supposed to provoke.

Tags: good jobs | jobs | living wage | minimum wage

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