The Dying Middle Class: “Two American Families” (PBS Frontline) – Something To Watch

The YouTube Auto-Play Pit…

Hiya guys! Come watch a movie with me!

I started climbing down the YouTube auto-play pit when Duke of Dollar recommended a Warren Buffet documentary. I believe it was around midnight, I had insomnia, and way too many tabs open…this is how all these things start.

Who knows what the YouTube Gods dictate in the auto-play tab but after I woke up from my slumber, PBS Frontline – “Two American Families” was starting. In my sleepy haze and being generally too lazy to roll over to find which tab was playing (out of the fifty tabs I had open), I started watching it.

“Two American Families” is a longitudinal documentary following two separate “middle class” families in Milwaukee through the early 90s and past the Great Recession of 2008 for over two decades. It captures the changing landscape of the American economy caused by a blend of globalization and neoliberalism.

I’m not a huge film buff but “Two American Families” drew me in pretty fast. I’m a hugeee fan of longitudinal studies. Good longitudinal productions are few and far in between because they are orbitally more expensive to produce, not to mention naturally time-consuming as well. There is always the risk of something happening to the participants that can thwart all-consuming production efforts.

I always tell with my husband that my attention span is nonexistent beyond the 30 minute mark. I have no patience for films. But I really enjoyed this documentary. I did something that I don’t usually do with films…I came back to finish it.

The official introduction to the documentary:

Since 1992, Bill Moyers has been following the story of two ordinary, hard-working families in Milwaukee — one black, one white — as they battle to keep from sliding into poverty.1

The documentary gives in-depth look on how unemployment and underemployment affects areas of life and family. You see both family struggling to make ends meet and to find stability against the odds.

*Spoilers* *Spoilers* *Spoilers* *Spoilers* *Spoilers* *Spoilers*

The Neumanns

It starts out with a young Terry Neumann and her husband Tony Neumann talking about the impact of their financial difficulties lately.

Tony and Terry were high school sweethearts and they married right out of high school. Tony worked a good union job and Terry became a stay-at-home mom. They had two children and one on the way when Tony’s good union factory job moved away in search for cheaper labor.

This is when their struggles began.

No other jobs offered enough compensation or benefits that matched the union job Tony once had.

After struggling for decades to support their family and keeping the mortgage in good standing (Terry becoming a working mom and Tony started working night shifts etc.) Terry and Tony separated amicably. Tony resigned from further interviews with PBS Frontline. Terry lost their house after the Great Recession hit. The house was foreclosed and auctioned off for ¼ of the price she had left on the balance sheet.

In the last interview, she was working as a minimum wage home healthcare aid part-time and living with a friend. Her three children are now grown but in no better financial positions than their parents. Their younger son is a gardener and her oldest son became a teenage father studying to become a car mechanic at a for-profit trade school with another child on the way. Terry is nearing retirement with zero retirement savings. Although she wants to be a nurse, the investment of time and money is something she does not have. The goal for her now is to save enough money to buy a mobile home.

My Response

Longitudinal productions are spooky. Noticeably in the beginning Terry Neumann had such youth and naïvety in her eyes. She didn’t have outlandish dreams. She wanted what her parents had which was a nice house, a picket fence, kids and a husband. The all-American dream. She had this innocence because she was just a small town girl and she expected life to be a script that everyone has hummed to her from day one.

In the last part of the interview you see her face – older now and her eyes harder. It’s still Terry Neumann but it’s a different Terry Neumann. This Terry has no naïvety. She is mature and somber. Her face appeared stony and sad. She looks like she woke up from a nap and looking around, she realizes her situation and she is not happy with the turn out. 

The Stanleys

On the other side of the Milwaukee town was the Stanley family, Claude and Jackie Stanley with their 5 children. Claude Stanley is the patriarch of the Stanley household. Claude lost his good union job like the Neumann’s did and was struggling to find work as well. The Stanleys refuse to sign up for government benefits so to make ends meet Claude and his 3 sons do odd jobs (lawn care and hauling junk) for extra money.

Jackie Stanley is the matriarch of the Stanley household. Jackie was studying to become a real estate agent in an effort to get her family out of the slump. However, blows by Claude’s health and Jackie’s tepid real estate career (because she was an African-American and they didn’t want her selling properties on the good side of town) knocked them down and out multiple times.

After Claude lost his health insurance, the family relied on credit cards to pay for Claude’s medical expenses. They struggled to send their oldest son to college and they were only able to do so by opening credit cards to cover housing and books. Jackie phrases this as “it’s called rob Peter to pay Paul.

After the 2008 housing bust put a stop to Jackie’s real estate career, the Stanley’s turned her real estate office flat into a small church and donation center. They continue giving back to the community and teaching others about having faith through tough times. Claude worked odd jobs throughout the decades in airports, forestry, garbage, any odd job he can find.

The last interview with the Stanleys was bittersweet. Claude and Jackie are still together. Their oldest son, Keith Stanley, is now a successful and respected entrepreneur with the city non-profit. Claude comforts as Jackie tearfully tells the interviewer she almost rejected the last interview update because she didn’t want others to see her “failures.” The Stanleys are of retirement age but either Jackie or Claude can retire. They have no money saved and the plan is to work until they die.

My Response

First of all, the Stanleys parents deserve commendation. Claude and Jackie are amazing people with a fierce dedication to their faith and their community. Jackie is a helluva woman and Claude didn’t even flinch when things got rough. He stood by his family and hustled when life kicked them down over and over. To quote: “When I got laid off, they wanted me to go on welfare, but I could not stand in that line. This is not me. I got my strength, my health, I will find me a job.” They’re indestructible – I just found it incredible that at the end of the day, they can get up and say they got to keep going. They never quit and even more incredible: they never stopped giving back.

Let’s be realistic. How many of us have dreams? It would be silly to say all of us can make our dreams a reality.

In fact, most of us don’t.

Life kicks sometimes and the world is a tough place to try to get back on your feet once you’ve been kicked. A lot of people probably wouldn’t want to talk about their failures on national TV. Jackie did decide to give that final interview (as if I needed another assurance that she and Claude are brave people). I wept a bit when Jackie Stanley said she felt like a failure because her life didn’t turn out like she thought. It hit a nerve somewhere inside me. I can’t compare to Jackie obviously. She is a lioness in EVERY. SENSE. OF. THE. WORD. 

*Spoilers* *Spoilers* *Spoilers* *Spoilers* *Spoilers* *Spoilers*

Takeaways From The Film:

Outside the Bubble

How fortunate Jared and I are – how fortunate a lot of us here are – compared to the burden that both the Neumanns and Stanleys of the world carry. This is how a good portion of middle America lives.

When Financial Samurai published his post on how little Americans have in their savings – I didn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe it. Yes, I saw the numbers – it’s not too different from the other statistics I saw but I couldn’t believe it. After a good 30-40 years of working and take into account compounding – how is it possible someone doesn’t have anything saved for retirement?

It’s silly how sheltered I am sometimes. It’s not the data that is wrong – it’s just my bubble.


Never feel safe and complacent with where you are in life. Jobs move away, politics change and we’re all insignificant to waves hardship especially if we are financially unprepared for it. You can’t trust anyone on that Hill to help you no matter who is or isn’t spearheading the airwaves. That is blind hope.

Linear Thought

Hardwork and diligence doesn’t always mean reward. Life isn’t linear in that way.

The A+B=C success and failure formula has been internalized by both of these American families. The Stanleys and Neumanns hold fixed belief that they have failed as individuals. This adds another layer to the tragedy that brings to light the fact that within an economic system, one that places personal culpability, when most likely it is actually the systemic conditions that contributed to personal hardships. There’s no rule against life kicking you down again before you get back on your feet here.

Social Mobility

Jackie Stanley shopped at the thrift stores in order to find discounts on the same brand things other professionals in her industry wore in an effort to “dress the part,” like the people from the good side of town. But Jackie was passed off from selling the nicer houses on the nice side of town because she was African-American. That ticked me off so much I still can’t even. This was in the 90s! That was like yesterday.


What I found odd was not one of the both families in either generation wanted to move to an area with more economic stimulus. This relates back to the cost of moving, separation from their “roots” and general complacency as well.

The Domino Effect

Once a competitor can produce an item for less, it is a race to the bottom. In a town where 40,000 workers lose their union job, the blow is significant. A lot of people are now out of work and down on their feet. Where would help be generated from if the entire community suffers? The Neumanns and Stanleys had themselves and very little others who could support them because most likely their circle is going through the same thing.


two-american-families-pbs-reviewI couldn’t get this documentary out of my head. I was born in 1991 so this was a time capsule for me. It wasn’t even intentional in it’s visual appeal – that’s just how people looked back in the 90s. I couldn’t help but to giggle at Terry’s Farrah Fawcett hair and the giant shoulder pads that Jackie wore.

Two American Families” was an extremely well done piece of work. Granted I understand documentaries (especially the PBS ones) are supposed to pull at your heart-strings with a single fitting narrative but still – it opened my eyes.

To be honest, I hated writing that synopsis. It was painful because I found it painful to recall. I wanted to recall some “good” news from two deserving, industrious families but I just summarize basically what is essentially one blow after another financially. Repeat this a hundred thousand more times and you have a modern-day tragedy.


Watch the full free documentary on YouTube here (and if you like quality remember toggle it to 720p.)


17 thoughts on “The Dying Middle Class: “Two American Families” (PBS Frontline) – Something To Watch”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.