“Forget the dreams, how do we make it to tomorrow?” asks Ben, a husband and father who’s been laid off from his job at the credit branch of a car company, has fallen behind on the mortgage and is struggling to provide the basics for his family.
Ben is one of the distressed Americans trying to keep his head above water in “American Winter,” a documentary produced by Emmy award-winning filmmakers Joe and Harry Gantz, and debuting tonight on Monday, March 18th on HBO. It tells the story of the worst recession of our lifetime through the eyes of eight families in Portland, Oregon during one winter.
Working with the nonprofit organization 211info in Portland, the Gantz’s were given full access to monitor and record calls from families calling the emergency hotline for help. They followed some of these callers over the next several months.
NBC News talked with Joe and Harry Gantz about their film, and about what they hope to achieve with their firsthand view of the struggle millions of Americans are experiencing.
NBC News: The tag line to the film is “a documentary about a country in search of its promise. “ What do you mean by that?
Joe Gantz: The promise is that America is the land of opportunity. The American dream is that anybody can make it in this country, that we’re all having equal opportunity, and if you try hard, you work hard, and you’re talented, you can achieve a comfortable life. I think that is slipping away in a lot of respects. It’s becoming harder and harder for somebody to raise a family. The wages for many Americans even if they’re working fulltime and overtime, they’re working at very low paid jobs and they’re not able to support a family. The families we followed in this film were comfortable three or four years ago, many of them were solidly middle class, they never envisioned being in this situation. As [Portland Commissioner] Nick Fish says in the film, we’re in a ‘one strike and you’re out’ economy, and so these families find themselves falling over the cliff, struggling in ways they never envisioned.
NBC News: Were you shocked at what you found when you really got into their homes and their lives and their stories?
Harry Gantz: I wouldn’t say we were shocked, but it certainly affected us to see the level of desperation and how it affects everybody emotionally. It’s not just trying to find a job, or trying to navigate the social services. That’s a full time job in itself. But it’s the emotional impact. Hearing these kids feel like they don’t know what their futures are going to be. This is the first generation of families that feels like it’s not going to get better. And because of the lack of decent social services and decent paying jobs, people feel like, the American dream, as one of the subjects in our film says, is [just] turning the heat on, turning the lights on.
Joe: We could listen to all the [211info] calls coming in. And there are hundreds of calls every day. And that is overwhelming. You’re just inundated by the level of desperation in this country. The people who aren’t in that situation often don’t know what 211is and don’t know what it’s like for the people who are in that situation. But you listen to those phone calls, “how do I get my heat on?”, “how do I get help for getting my electricity turned off?”, “how do I get help with my rent? , “how do I get food”? It’s just call after call after call.
NBC News: In some ways, the people you got to know are in plain sight. And yet, people who are not in that situation don’t seem to be aware of them.
Joe: There may be a bit of willful ignorance, on the one hand, by the people who are making it. But on the other hand, the people who are struggling are so ashamed. Our society says if you work hard and you’re talented, you push and go by the rules, you will succeed. And they’re not succeeding, they’re struggling mightily, so they are ashamed. They don’t tell people. We were working with families, and the children’s friends would come over, and I’d meet the family of that child that was visiting, and I’d explain what we were working on, and they’d say, “We’re in the same boat.” But they wouldn’t talk to each other because the parents had so much shame, they wouldn’t want to tell what was going on in their households. The shame keeps everyone extremely isolated.
Harry: The fear of destitution is inherent in everybody. So it’s in everybody’s best interests in this country to have a strong middle class, and to help people ascend from poverty.
Joe: The way people ignore this vast chunk of America that is falling off the financial cliff is by using these derogatory stereotypes about people who need help. They say they’re lazy, they made their own mistakes, if they were capable they would be succeeding, they should pull themselves up on their own. But when you follow these families as we did, over months, and you live with them and walk in their shoes and see what they’re dealing with, these families are all extremely hard-working, they’re loving families, and they want nothing more than to get back on their feet and be a contributing member of society.
NBC News: When you talk about help, what is your answer? Is it to put more money into the traditional safety net, or something else?
Harry: Whether it’s from taxpayers, or secular social services, or religious social services, it takes all of those three in order to deal with this problem. That’s the short term solution. Of course the longer term solution is a living wage job and a safety net that if you have a bump in the road and your kid gets sick or you lose your job, that there’s a net that society provides to help you get back on your feet.
Joe: And not just a net that helps you barely survive, not just a safety net that allows you not to starve. But a safety net that really helps you get back to where you once were so you can contribute once again.
Harry: There’s such a backlash right now about anything the government is doing. [Poor people] have been demonized to the point where it’s better just to cut government spending and “good luck, we’re all on our own, we’ll make it that way, leave me alone.” There are people in our film who felt that, and then found themselves in this situation and suddenly they had so much more insight and compassion for people in this position. What I learned is that no parent is perfect – most of these people got in this situation through no fault of their own. But even if it was their fault, and they made a bad decision – do the children deserve to suffer? No.
Joe: When the children suffer, the repercussions last for 20 or 30 years. They don’t graduate from high school, they don’t get a good job, they can wind up in prison – and the repercussions and costs for those kids go on and on.
NBC News: Do you feel after doing this project that there’s some takeaway that’s optimistic or some reason for hope?
Joe: What’s not depressing is spending time with these families. And seeing how their backs are against the wall, and seeing how these families come together because they have no one else to rely on. Most of these families don’t have financial help through their circle of friends or family. They have this core of love for each other and they’re determined to get through it. When you’re in a low paying job that takes a tremendous amount of your time, it takes a tremendous amount of time to track down social services, they don’t just come to your door and hand it to you. You spend so much time just calling and going to places and seeing what you can get, so it’s difficult. The difficulties of being on the financial edge are unimaginable if you haven’t been there. And yet these families have this much love for each other and this much struggle to keep going and be positive and keep their hopes up. The human spirit is something I’m optimistic about on an individual basis.
Harry: I feel the same way as the families do. If you’re not at least optimistic, what are your children going to say? They’re going to feel like they’re doomed. Part of the American spirit is to be optimistic and if you’re not optimistic, it’s hard to get up in the morning and go on in that situation. This film is advocating for not cutting social services. The system can’t take any more.
Joe: Demonstrations are good too! People have to get together and show, this is the majority of this country. And if by putting these faces in front of the public rids the shame that’s associated with being poor, that might empower more poor people to advocate for themselves.