Middle-Class Struggle Is ‘A Matter of Light And Gas’ In A PBS Documentary

While the focus on deficit reduction and austerity continues to permeate the economic dialogue, two families in Wisconsin have dealt with the everyday pains of the jobless and underpaid American middle class.

Bill Moyers has charted their journey for a decade on his PBS shows as they dealt with the the modern struggle of the “new normal” of the post-recession American economy. Their plight is now going to be featured in a PBS Frontline special, “Two American Families,” scheduled to be aired Tuesday.

The Stanleys and the Neumanns were ordinary families in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Terry and Tony Neumann, and Jacqueline and Claude Stanley worked stable, factory jobs in the late 1980s. However, their stability was ripped from under them as they, as did many middle-class families, dealt with the shock of the 1991 recession. For them, this meant layoffs. More consequentially, this meant late mortgage payments, endless and often fruitless job hunts, and retraining to obtain the necessary skills to compete in the upcoming post-industrial economy. However, their efforts were largely met with closed doors, hungry mouths, and tearful eyes, as their children watched their parents struggle to survive.

They were able to get by, but investments in retraining did not yield the returns they expected. As the eldest Stanley daughter so accurately characterized, “But for us, it’s a matter of not life and death, but it’s a matter of light and gas. And that’s scary.”

These tough decisions are still being made twenty-three years later. Families from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Winston-Salem, North Carolina began another month without a job or working as many as three jobs with very few benefits. Yet the conversation is now just shifting to job creation. Elected officials must do more than make job creation another slogan for their campaigns in the upcoming elections. As this PBS Frontline special demonstrates, we need to bolster this change in priorities. American economic recovery should be built on the pillars of job creation and strengthening the American middle class. The Stanleys and the Neumanns of the dwindling middle class should not be left behind.

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