There is no issue more central to what is wrong with our country, and cruel, then the plight of middle class/working class Americans over the last 40 years. It’s mainly come through an assault on labor by lowering wages and increasing inequality. But it has devastating effects on all Americans, because it has turned the dream that once made America great into a nightmare.
A PBS Frontline documentary from Bill Moyers shows the decline it in all it’s heartbreaking reality, Watch “Two American Families” right now.
This morning I intended to write about “This Town,” a new book about Washington DC by a writer named Mark Leibovich, but last night I got distracted and spent ninety minutes watching “Two American Families,” a “Frontline” documentary that aired on the local PBS affiliate. It’s one of the best, and most heartbreaking, documentaries I’ve seen this year. It’s not about a tragedy or disaster. It wasn’t “hard to watch” because it was about a singularly awful moment in human history or one unspeakable monstrous act — a hurricane or war or even a specific crime committed by specific people — but because it just happened to document the lives of some struggling working-class families beginning at shortly after the point when the ground fell out from beneath the American lower-middle class and ending now, when there’s clearly no hope for a return to economic security.
Bill Moyers began following the lives of two Milwaukee families, the Stanleys and the Neumanns, in 1992, when they were the subjects of a documentary called “Minimum Wages: The New Economy.” In the 1980s both families were supported by union manufacturing jobs. Those jobs have just disappeared when we first meet the Neumanns — Terry and Tony, a white couple — and the Stanleys — Jackie and Claude, black — in 1991. Moyers followed up with the families with additional documentaries in 1995 and 2000. “Two American Families” combines the footage shot throughout the ’90s with follow-up material shot last year.
To use the regrettable cliche, both families “played by the rules.” They are in fact superhumanly devoted to the rules. They both attend church — Claude is actually a minister — and they hate the idea of going on the dole and they take any available work and the kids are boy scouts and their parents are dedicated to their educations. The families are so virtuous, so imbued with the great American work ethic, that it is practically unfair to other struggling Americans; families that fuck up deserve our sympathy, and the support of a social safety net, as well. But as George Packer wrote earlier this month, the film serves as a rebuke to right-wing social critics like the execrable Charles Murray, “who believe that the decline of America’s working class comes from a collapse of moral values, social capital, personal responsibility, and traditional authority….” These people are overflowing with personal responsibility.
Their are not enough jobs available in our country that pay a living wage, with benefits, and enough to save for retirement/or a pension. A living wage as Teddy Roosevelt defined it:
We stand for a living wage.
Wages are subnormal if they fail to provide a living for those who devote their time and energy to industrial occupations.
The monetary equivalent of a living wage varies according to local conditions, but must include:
enough to secure the elements of a normal standard of living–
a standard high enough to make morality possible, [Emphasis added]
to provide for education and recreation,
to care for immature members of the family,
to maintain the family during periods of sickness,
and to permit of reasonable saving for old age.”
It’s hard to envision how to bring back the American Dream without realizing what happened to it. For that watch Bill Moyers’ recent conversation with Charlie Rose.
Also the authors of the book The Betrayal of the American Dream, answer questions about what has gone so wrong, Restoring the American Dream. The common denominator in all of this is the assault on the cost of labor over the last 40 years.
And there is another discussion of this from this week’s Moyers & Co.
This is not a left/right or Democratic/Republican issue. Both parties are responsible. Too many of our elected leaders have been driving the policies that have eroded the middle class and overwhelmingly benefitted the wealthy. And most of the rest stood by and watched passively as it happened. It will take a movement of the people to rise up and demand change, before one party – or a new party – takes up the needs of the people as it’s reason to exist.
The videos all come together to show an America that is no longer doing right for it’s people. All it takes is a return to fairness in out country, but that won’t come without a fight. Most don’t want much just a job that pays well enough to take care of their family, educate their children, health care, and allow them enough to retire, you know, what we used to call the American Dream.
From George Packer, The Fall of the American Worker.
On Sunday, the Times reported that C.E.O. pay in 2012 increased by sixteen per cent over the previous year, with the median compensation package now at $15.1 million. The blessings at the top grow more fruitful year by year, in good times and bad. There must be a social or economic theory somewhere that explains why all this is necessary and just.