“I think the hardest time is when you have to worry about coming home,” says Keith Stanley, “And there’s always a bill on the door saying the water’s cut off, or the guy just called saying he’s gonna cut off the phone, or the electricity’s off, and you have to wait for a couple of days until mom and dad can get enough money to put it back on.” Keith is just 14 years old here, long and lanky and wearing a bright green t-shirt, and as he finishes speaking, the camera pans left, to his mom, Jackie. She listens carefully, then turns to walk away. The scene cuts here, to a look at the block in Sherman Park where the Stanleys live—a long shot of neat single-story homes, with lawns and hedges and driveways.
It’s 1991, and Kathleen Hughes and Tom Casciato are just starting to film Two American Families, combining scenes from their 1992 film Minimum Wages: The New Economy and footage shot since then, for 1995’s Living on the Edge, and 2000’s Surviving the Good Times.Premiering on PBS’ Frontline, the film shows how Claude and Jackie Stanley and Tony and Terry Neumann have fared in a declining economy over 20 years. In 1991, Claude is waterproofing basements, a job without benefits and paying only $8 an hour, much less than he once made. His oldest daughter Nicole hopes to go to college, while his three sons, Keith and twins Claude and Klaudale, have formed their own lawn-work crew: the camera peeps up a them against bright blue skies, as they mow and trim.
At the same time, Jackie—laid off from her job at Briggs & Stratton, a manufacturer of small engine parts that was something of an institution in Milwaukee—earns her real estate license and starts selling houses. Ambitious and energetic, she faces what interviewer Bill Moyers describes as “resistance” at work. That is, her assignments tend to be in Center City, the black area, and not the suburbs, where commissions would be higher.
In 1991, Moyers’ hair is a little thicker than it is now, but his work here is of a piece of with his career as a journalist and essayist, analyzing the effects, causes, and politics of poverty. His questions are gently encouraging, earnestly interested, whether he’s talking to children or to parents. For this film, those will be Jackie and her husband Claude (they have five children, including Keith) and Terry and Tony Neumann, who have three kids. Both families live in Milwaukee, and both are hoping, in 1991, that their fortunes are about to turn.
As the film begins, both the Stanleys (who are white) and the Neumanns (black) are living, as they say, paycheck to paycheck. The reasons are at once as individual and common as you might imagine, having to do with decisions concerning education and downturns in local and national economies. Until 1986, Tony was working at Briggs. Assuming the job was stable, he and Terry bought a house and started their family. “Tony and I have known each other since we were probably two years old,” says Terry, as the film shows family photos of the two as children as well as footage of them in church, now, singing. Some of their “American dream” came true, she smiles, “but some of it, as far as the bumpy roads, I didn’t expect either.”
Their story becomes increasingly complicated, as Tony looks for work (the camera follows him on his bike, leaving resumes at hardware stores and supermarkets) and Terry tries selling skin care products to neighbors (one woman smiles patiently, as the shot cuts to Terry’s basket of product and pink ribbons). The mortgage company is pressuring for payment, and Terry admits, “I didn’t answer them right now because I wanted to talk to Tony and he wasn’t home.” Moyers sympathizes from off screen: “You must dread it when the phone rings.” She does, and Tony feels guilty too, he narrates over another scene, his face illuminated by a flickering TV light.
This film includes the previous footage and also revisits the Neumanns and the Stanleys intermittently over the course of the next 20 years, and none of their situations improves. Their kids spend too much time alone at home as the parents work multiple jobs. The details of particular scenes are striking and moving. When Keith graduates high school, and becomes the first member of his family to go to college, his mother is, as she puts it, for the first time speechless. Determined to make his dream possible, his parents manage the payments on credit cards (and an expense they are unable to manage for his siblings). “It’s called rob Peter to pay Paul,” Jackie says, not quite smiling, even as Moyers notes that living on credit is, in 1998, “a way of life for the average American.”
While Keith works extra jobs at school, his parents run a church on the weekends (Claude is now an ordained pastor) and Jackie continues to plug away at real estate. On his graduation, Keith works as an assistant to Milwaukee’s common county president, in addition to other jobs (as a landlord, as a videographer), which keep him in touch the neighborhood where he grew up, where, Moyers points out, the jobless rate for African American men is close to 50 percent.
Keith’s relative success, he says, is a measure of Jackie and Claude’s parenting. They inspired him, he says, and “also made me make a lot of tough decisions,” including his decision to put off marriage and having children until he feels “sure I can control my destiny.” Moyers sits down with Jackie and Claude once more, and wonders how they have maintained their faith and resilience in the face of so many setbacks. “Still,” Claude asserts, “Praise the Lord,” to which Jackie adds, “I would interject it, saying, ‘What else?’ We have no other choice.”
This sense of no options pervades Two American Families. No matter how hard they work or how committed they may be, still, they can’t catch up, let alone get ahead. Moyers frames the problem in broad cultural and economic terms: with the loss of manufacturing jobs and access to insurance (in Claude and Jackie’s case, the family is set back by unexpected medical crises), he says, families such as the Stanleys and the Neumanns, once identified as “middle class,” are now under near constant financial pressures, with little hope of emerging into the future they once imagined.
“Do you think you’ll ever be financially secure”? Moyers asks Terry. Because you’ve seen her go through changes over two decades—her various jobs (for which she has trained and retrained), her kids having kids, her house lost to foreclosure—her answer sounds at once matter of fact and tragic. “I don’t think anybody’s gonna be financially secure, truthfully.”