It’s a central premise of the American dream: If you’re willing to work hard, you’ll be able to make a living and build a better life for your children.
But what if working hard isn’t enough to ensure success—or even the basics of daily life?
Two American Families, a special 90-minute FRONTLINE documentary more than two decades in the making, is a portrait of perseverance that raises unsettling questions about the changing nature of the American economy and the fate of a declining middle class.
Airing Tuesday, July 9, 2013, at 10 p.m. on KCPT at 8pm, this is the saga of two ordinary families in Milwaukee—one black, one white—who have spent the past 21 years in an extraordinary battle to keep from sliding into poverty.
“There’s something that I always say: ‘So a man thinketh, so is he,’” Jackie Stanley, the matriarch of the African American Stanley family, tells correspondent Bill Moyers. “If I think poverty all the time, I’ll act that way. I can’t afford to talk negative and then allow my children to see me that way, down or depressed.”
Moyers and producers Tom Casciato and Kathleen Hughes first began documenting the lives of the Stanleys and the Neumanns more than two decades ago, shortly after the breadwinners in both families had lost well-paying factory jobs and were struggling to adapt to a new, global economy.
“When I got laid off, they wanted me to go on welfare, but I could not stand in that line,” says Claude Stanley, Jackie’s husband. “I just said, it’s not me … I say, I got my strength, my health; I’m going to find me a job.”
“It really bothers us that we have to depend on other people,” says Terry Neumann, the matriarch of the white family. “You just want to get up and … go in the car and go grocery shopping and have a normal life again.”
With searing intimacy, Two American Families chronicles the stories of the Neumanns and the Stanleys through the present as they try to keep their homes, their health insurance and their dignity. The film is the fourth installment in a series of PBS documentaries following the two families that began in 1992 with Minimum Wages: The New Economy and continued throughout the 1990s with two more films—a 1995 collaboration with FRONTLINE calledLiving on the Edge and a 2000 PBS special called Surviving the Good Times.
Twelve years, two administrations and a Great Recession have passed since that most recent broadcast, and nearly 50 million Americans are now living in poverty. Trends toward low-wage, part-time work have only increased.
How are the Stanleys and the Neumanns making do? After fighting for living wages for more than 20 years, have they found an economic foothold? Are they and their now-grown children financially secure? Have they been able to hold their families together? Will they persevere?
As Jackie Stanley says, “We have no other choice.”