Two American Families

Posted on July 11, 2013. Filed under: Debt, Principles vs. Prices, Recession Spirit, Student Loans, Uncategorized, Unemployment, Values | Tags: , , |

Watch Frontline’s Two American Families, 23 years in the making, as soon as possible. Like all Frontline episodes, it is available in full and for free on the PBS website.

It is difficult to watch: At times I cried such that I could not speak. Why? Because Frontline could have filmed our family in Detroit, over the same period of time, and much of the story would have been the same.

There is the Neumann family in Wisconsin. Like my parents, they had children when times were good, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We now know that these were the very last days of decent wages for working class people in the U.S. It was so hard to watch the destruction of their family by the greed of almighty business and capitalism, which exists for absolutely nothing but profit.

Like my parents, Mr. and Mrs. Neumann eventually both have to work fulltime and have to work two different shifts. They never see each other and, not surprisingly, grow apart. If my mother had a job teaching ESL at night, Dad worked during the day. When Dad could only find work on nights, Mom worked during the day. My brother and I marveled that they stayed married as long as they did.

Like my brother and me, the Neumann children begin to develop behavioral issues without their parents around. This should surprise no one. My brother and I were hauled into child psychologists a few times over the years, but they said our behavior was essentially normal given the circumstances: lives uprooted, anxiety, depression, lack of safety or moorings.

And always, declining wages were my parents’ reward for killing themselves for a greedy employer. My dad makes less per hour now at age 62 than he did in the late 1970s, without benefits.

We see Mrs. Neumann needing food assistance from the church food pantry. If not for my grandparents bringing us groceries, we’d have been there too. It was plain, dumb luck that we had grandparents who were A) still alive, B) lived nearby, C) good enough to care to help AND D) had enough money to spare for our groceries. They also prevented my parents from losing our house. My grandparents were the only difference we had and it is one that the Neumanns did not.

I was three-years-old the first time I saw my grandparents come through our back door with groceries. It was, and still is, burned into my mind because it was so unusual. To this day, I can see the motion they make as the door pushes open, what they are wearing, what their glasses look like, how happy they are to see me standing there waiting for them. I ask “Grandma! Grandpa! Why do you have groceries?!” and my grandfather, setting them on the kitchen table before picking me up, says “We accidentally bought too many and they’ll go bad!” I knew, even then, that it wasn’t true, that my grandparents would never do such a thing, and that it meant things were bad – really bad. I knew this in a deep sense without really having the vocabulary to describe it. Simple dread, I guess.

To this day, I need to have a few pounds of dried black beans in the house to feel secure. I just need to be able to see them. I feel unreasonably anxious if we eat the black beans and I haven’t bought more yet, and there is no bag of beans. A good friend of mine is the same way with canned goods. She doesn’t even like them, really. She just needs to see some cans on the shelf. She suspects this is because, when she was little and both her parents had to start working, she was only sure she could feed herself if the food was in a can, because she knew how to open a can.

I want to find Keith Stanley and hug him: Keith, I decided long ago not to have children. Even though I’m married and 36 and we’re both employed, I am not so foolish as to take the chance. My brother, age 34, is the same way! My parents worked so hard to protect us, but there’s an inescapable fact when you’re a child in a family that just can’t seem to make it: you are one more mouth to feed and you know it. No matter how much you know you are loved, there’s the plain fact that you are one more mouth to feed and the financial side of life would be easier if you weren’t there. Besides, we have our parents to take care of. We can’t support ourselves and three aging parents AND some kids. Uh uh.

Keith Stanley, I thought I was the only one in college working three jobs and still having to make some tuition payments on a credit card! I thought I was all alone. I knew logically that I couldn’t be, but until I watched Two American Families I was so ashamed of it that I realized I had never (at age 36) told anyone that. I told my husband tonight and realized I’d never SAID it before.

Watch this program. You’re not alone and it’s not your fault.

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8 Responses to “Two American Families”

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At age 74, I have tried to live the “American Dream” three times. Each time that dream began to fade away, the GOP was the Party in power. At this time in my life, parents, spouse, brothers and sisters, long time friends have passed on before me. Even living alone now, on a S.S. check of $1,100 a month is terrifying to many old timers like myself. I beg my two daughters, both now heading into middle age and married with kids of their own, to stay as far from buying on credit as possible and saving every dollar possible for surviving retirement. As luck would have it, I’m a veteran and Life Member of Veterans of Foreign Wars, and through my local Post have benefited from its ownership of three apartments above it, renting one for 10 years now at a very reasonable rate. With the help of my kids, I’m able to have this laptop and a web connection, which both helps keep me informed as to whats going on in the world, my country and locally, without which I’d go nuts. Public TV is one of my favorite viewing pleasures and connection also. Well, bless all of you that been able to make the American Dream work for you.

“Everyone!!! knows but they won’t tell”
The whole problem is gang related.
I went into the military to serve my country to lay down my life if needed for the American Dream. The recruiter lied to me. Told me that” I could go to college on military base”. But I was moved around so much that was not possible on most bases. Everything I owed while in the military was stolen on base by gang members in high ranking positions. I got out of the military because I was harassed by and because of gang activity in the military. My children and my wife lived in a car on the side of the road for almost a year due to no job no money.
I went to work for a company doing yard work, the boss tried to pay me in Cocaine that he wanted me to sell after work. When I refused (I said look I just want money I am not a drug addict”) I was let go.( this was Regan and O.N.s war on drugs). I decided to go to school. I started but gang members where harassing my family. And my 3 year old came up missing do to gang members later was left on side of road.
I quit school and got a security job so I could carry a gun. My house was being broke into by gang members and shots where fired, I had to go to court for two years then when I could not afford to pay the attorney any more money the case was dismissed.
My wife left me because she could not handle all the violence living in poverty,
Now with no children or wife, I finally get a good job with a small retirement package making 6.00 an hour. I work there for almost 18 years and then gang members get hired into the company they start killing people for their jobs. I tried to stop them. Then, when they came for me, they threatened to kill my whole family, I just quit I only had two years to go before I could get my retirement. However, if you’re dead what good is a retirement going to do. I am now old!!! I took out a loan on my house that I had been paid off. Along with my savings, I went back to school to train for a new job. I started at new job and less than a year gang members started harassing me threatening my family so I quit all they wanted was my job my pay check.
So I started mowing grass and digging ditches on my own. While I was digging a ditch a gang members came up to me and tried rob me. Almost getting killed, I decided I would try to get job in a plant where you had to have a TWIC card thinking they cannot be gang members working there… Well after working there for almost 3 years again I was harassed by gang members my family threatened. I quit, I am now losing my house. I lost my retirement, I lost my family.
What makes it worse these illegal aliens or immigrants have now bought my house at such a low price after it went to foreclosure. If I could of got it at that price I could paid for it 10 times over and over. Without mercy, they made it unbearable to live there then took over. What do you think I should of done differently? I look around and all I see is illegal aliens working. They now have all the jobs. The neighborhood where I used to live appears to be now all illegals owning the homes, Where did all my neighbors go? The governor’s say these aliens start up more businesses than legal Americans. My question is? IS HOW? The answer is?
“Everyone!!! knows but they won’t tell”

The “American Dream”, as I see it, is an anomaly of history. It is a bi-product of the post WWII era; as Tom Peters put it so eloquently in the ’90’s “We were 10 and 0 when we had no competition.” The post WWII era is long gone and America is still living in the “We’re #1″ megalomania of the past. But that, in no way, excuses the move toward oligarchy that American companies have imposed on the American people.

I am a young person who graduated from university in 2010, in the midst of the worst job market in years. Watching “Two American Families” was touching, especially the parts about feeling like a failure for not being able to live up to what is increasingly feeling like an unobtainable American Dream. I’ve felt that way a lot since graduating from university.
I was the only person I knew graduating who had a job lined up, but it was a temporary contract with no benefits. I worked hard to save up and go abroad to volunteer teaching in Chile. After returning, I worked seven days a week to save for moving to South Korea to teach. I’ve gotten four visas in the last five years, and I feel as though I have to move abroad in order to find the kind of job that my parents have and the benefits that should be a part of all people’s work life.
Even though I am from an affluent area, the economic recession has changed how those in my community view success and what is normal as a young adult. I currently live in my parents’ basement with my partner, because we cannot afford to rent or own while I work full-time to save for graduate school. I am about to take on loans to finance my further education, and the stress of trying to find a way to pay for school keeps me up at night. The people of my generation in my neighbourhood have almost all had to move back in at some point in the last five years, and the expectations we had as children in the boom years have had to be curtailed.
I’m not sure I can afford to begin a family in the US (or anywhere else), and owning property seems like a distant dream. I have never owned a car, I only have health insurance through my parents until I turn 26, and the idea of ever retiring makes me snort aloud. I am lucky to have the support of my family, and that they have the means to keep their house. We are certainly considered middle class, but sometimes I feel like it will be very hard to make my own life fit into that distinction.
I reject the intergenerational sniping that claims people my age are just lazy, or just entitled, or just spoiled. I work hard, I study hard, and I do everything that I was told would lead to the American Dream when growing up. Access to health care, food, and shelter are not entitlements…they are fundamental rights. I am fully prepared to leave the US and seek better opportunities elsewhere.

Thank you for sharing your story. I, too, have a very good friend who moved to Seoul four years ago because it was the only place she could find a full-time teaching job with benefits after looking for nearly two years. I really feel for you, having known her during that time that she was trying SO HARD to find work, and I sure do miss having her nearby. Do not ever feel badly or ashamed or that this is your fault: it’s structural and systemic. My friend was in her early 30s and had taught at excellent schools in the SF Bay Area for nearly 10 years. She has a Master’s degree in Education and TEFL certification and could not find a job in the U.S. to save her life. In the case of her parents (who are very conservative and really believe the “bootstraps” line), it took this happening to their own daughter to believe how bad the job market really was. Now, they hate not having her here and see it as their punishment for giving her a hard time when she couldn’t find work. I wish you the very best of luck, hate that you have to move, but assure that she has come to love Seoul. She had the opportunity to return to the U.S. and decided to stay. I don’t think the U.S. realizes what we’re losing when we “export” people like you and my friend.

Interestingly, I once had to teach about “brain drain” in Korea! That was a funny lesson.

Enjoyed every moment watching ‘Two American Families’. The beautiful individuals, each with such resilience. I’ll never forget any of them. What was stunning was seeing three pomp and circumstance presidents talking job creation with such pat rhetoric they didn’t need notes….like knowing the words to a song….sing the song like you believe it. Looking through all the comments on the various sites, I haven’t seen any comment on unions. Regan busted the unions and the unions let it happen in 1980. The decimation of the American middle class began immediately. Immediately. Unions stood between the worker and the obscene profits that CEO’s and Wall Street walk away with today. We had good jobs, and work pride when we had labor unions. We have allowed all of it to happen right before our eyes. They took our jobs overseas and we continued to buy from those same companies, those companies never felt a blip. ‘Two Families’ should be required viewing for every American. We need to start acting like the middle class….nothing moves unless we move it. Vote…get the deadbeats out of Congress….means all of ‘em. Join a union, start a union. Buy American. Get our wealth back from the crooks who stole it. They’re not afraid if us because we don’t scare them in the least.

Susan, thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I couldn’t agree with you more. I’ve long thought that a first good requirement (perhaps a WTO regulation?) to address some of these issues would be a law requiring CEOs and other senior executives to live in the country in which the majority of their items are manufactured. That way, they could enjoy living under the governments in countries like China or Pakistan, facing the employees they have there, and the fruits of their EPA-regulation-free manufacturing practices. It’s easy to know when certain people enter and exit the country and would be very easy to discern whether these executives were living where they claimed to.

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