What Happened to Economic Mobility in America?

The plight of two American families in Milwaukee explains the other half of the winner-take-all economy

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FRONTLINE

Over the last 20 years, two middle class American families -- the Stanleys and the Neumanns -- have done all the right things. Milwaukee natives, they worked hard, learned news skills,  and tried to show their children that strivers would be rewarded.

But their lives -- as captured in an extraordinary Frontline documentary -- are an American calamity. Followed by filmmakers for two decades, they move from dead-end job to dead-end job, one of the couples' divorces, and most of their children spiral downward economically, not up.

The Stanleys and the Neumanns are a microcosm of the middle class that President Barack Obama -- and House Republicans -- will spar over for the remainder of Obama's presidency. And they are part of a global trend. Across industrialized nations, income inequality is growing and people like the Stanleys and Neumanns are the losers.

"Mobility is a two-edged sword," said Miles Corak, an economist at the University of Ottawa who has studied income inequality across countries. "And you're looking at the other edge of the sword."

At the very top, life is getting sweeter. As my colleague Chrystia Freeland noted last month, the global "winner-take-all economy" is intensifying.

A June study found that the number of people worldwide with more than $1 million to invest soared to a record 12 million in 2012, a 9.2 percent increase over the previous year. The number of ultra rich -- the 111,000 people with investable assets of at least $30 million -- surged 11 percent.

The Stanleys and the Neumanns, meanwhile, are falling behind. Whatever your politics, please watch this film. These two families, one black and one white, put a human face on the polarized debate about what is happening to the American middle class.

Conservative viewers may feel that the two couples made mistakes -- failing to go to college, for example, or not moving out of a dying industrial town like Milwaukee. Liberal viewers may see them as victims of a globalized economy that rewards the few spectacularly and relegates the many to low-paying jobs.

Whatever the cause, their spiral is startling.

When filmmakers Bill Moyers, Kathleen Hughes and Tom Casciato, first visited them in 1991, the family's wages from union factory work comfortably supported them. In the early 1990s, however, as Milwaukee factories moved overseas, both of the Stanleys, and Tony Neumann, the Neumann patriarch, lost their jobs. They took lower-paying work and, to makes ends meet, Tony Neumann's wife, Terry, also had to enter the workforce.

Throughout the 2000s, the couples struggled on. Claude Stanley, the Stanley patriarch, waterproofed basements, started his own home inspection business and became a minister. By 2012, an illness has saddled him with enormous medical bills and his business had failed. At 59,  he was a city forestry department worker making $26,000 a year trimming trees and collecting garbage. His wife Jackie became a realtor, but never gained a foothold in a declining housing market. Only one of their five children finished college, paying tuition with credit cards.

After his layoff, Tony Neumann took a low-paying overnight factory job, and rarely saw his wife and three children. His wife Terry worked as a security guard, forklift operator and home healthcare attendant. By 2012, the couple, high school sweethearts, had divorced and lost their home through foreclosure.

Presented by

David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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