Bill Moyers (AP Photo/Ric Francis)
Before there was the Great Recession, the foreclosure crisis and the obscene economic divide that we see today, there was a gathering storm.
Bill Moyers began to capture it in 1991, documenting two families in Milwaukee—the Neumans and the Stanleys—as they strived to attain the American Dream: a measure of economic security and a better life for their kids.
Moyers followed their stories for the next twenty-two years, and tonight on Frontline, viewers will see just how the two families fared through today.
Produced by filmmakers Tom Casciato and Kathleen Hughes, Two American Families is the third must-see documentary in the past year—along with American Winter and A Place at the Table— about how “regular folks” are surviving in today’s economy. Watch it, and if your blood isn’t boiling by the end, check your pulse.
As Moyers narrates, the Neumans and Stanleys are what his grandmother would have called “the salt of the earth.” They are churchgoers, extremely hard workers and devoted parents, who struggle every day to “secure a foothold in the middle class.”
These are Americans who clearly play by the proverbial rules, and we see just as clearly that the rules don’t count for much if the game is rigged.
The struggles for both families begin in the early 1990s when good jobs are being shipped overseas or lost to non-union towns where wages are low. Tony Neuman loses his job with engine maker Briggs and Stratton where he was earning $18 an hour and good benefits. He searches for new work—restaurants, grocery stores, big box stores, hardware stores—they all pay less than $6 an hour.
“Little do they know that I need to live also,” says Tony.
He accepts a job at a non-union factory making engine parts on the night shift. He earns $8.25 an hour, no benefits. He lacks sleep and is irritable, and barely sees his wife, Terry, or their three children. Terry is forced to give up her work as a stay-at-home mother, taking a series of low-wage, part-time jobs. The Neumans struggle to pay the mortgage, one of their sons begins having trouble in school and all of the children miss the presence of their father.
“Our marriage is really on the rocks,” Tony reveals.
While the Stanleys’s marriage seems to be holding up—“We look on each other for our strength. Some days she has bad days, some days I have bad days,” Claude says—they are in a similar boat to the Neumans. Jackie also loses her job on the motor line with Briggs and Stratton, and Claude loses his assembly line job with the manufacturer AO Smith. Jackie goes into real estate and Claude takes a job waterproofing basements for $7 an hour—they bring home half of the pay they used to. Jackie tries to hide the hardship from their five children, living by the motto “fake it ‘til you make it.”