American Winter: It's a Cold Reality for Millions of Struggling Families

04/05/2013 12:28 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2013

It was a two-year process to make the documentary film American Winter. And this was a difficult film to make, because while working with these families it seemed as if there are two separate countries in America -- one that is struggling day to day to pay for their electricity, heat, rent and food, and the other that is doing well and is not tuned into those who are suffering right among them. In America the recession is over, and U.S. corporations and Wall Street are doing better than ever. Yet 46 million Americans are living in poverty, or near poverty, and today we have the highest number of poor since we began keeping records.

How can nearly half of our country be in such dire circumstances and yet our politicians chose this time of the most need in 80 years to cut budgets and social services all across the country? It's because there are such pervasive myths and stereotypes about those families who need help: They are lazy, they are takers, they are incapable, they made bad decisions -- so we don't need to care about them. But as we made American Winter we found a very different story. The families who we followed for this film are struggling, yet they are just like our friends, neighbors and members of our own family. They are hardworking, loving folks who have had a bit of bad luck, a job loss, a health issue, a death of a parent, a handicapped child. These events have set them back and then life becomes an uphill battle to get back on their feet again.

American Winter puts a face on these invisible families who have lost their jobs and can't find work, or who are working full time and overtime, yet they don't make enough per hour to pull their families out of poverty.

We found the families for this documentary by listening to calls coming into 211 Info in Portland, Ore., a crisis line for people needing help. We listened to hundreds of calls to 211 everyday -- and talk about a sobering experience. Listening to this unending river of calls coming from desperate American families really wakes you up quickly from thinking that all is well in the richest country on earth. We were struck by the vast number of families who are in need of help to stay in their homes, or even to eat. These families were often able to get food assistance, to keep them from starving, but they could not get resources that could help them get back on their feet, and begin to support their families again.

In making American Winter we saw firsthand how stressed and scared these parents are everyday by the prospect of losing their homes, and by the daily struggle to pay their bills. However, the most overwhelming part was seeing the kids who have lost hope for their future. These kids see their parents work extremely hard, and the kids say to themselves, "We're barely getting by everyday, how am I going to make it when I grow up?" And losing that sense of optimism and hope does not bode well for a child's future.

Doing the research for this documentary we found that in the U.S., more than 1 in 4 private sector workers earn less than $10 an hour, a yearly salary below the poverty line for a family of four. Yet in most U.S. cities, a full time worker with two kids must earn at least $21 an hour to meet their family's basic needs. Also, for most Americans, wages have not gone up over the last 30 years. Since the mid 1970s, CEO pay has gone up to almost 750 percent, while worker's pay has gone up just 5 percent.

Studies show that it is cheaper to help families before they become homeless. And it is cheaper to help families before the kids are traumatized by living with food and housing insecurity, because those kids don't do as well in school and they are more likely to wind up on drugs or in the prison system. Those costs to society will affect all of us for ten, twenty, thirty years to come. Yet even though it is cheaper to help families, to get them to a place where they are stable and productive, we seem to turn a blind eye and tell these families that they are on their own.

Every one of us needs help at some time in our lives. But the idea that families who need social services are "takers" is one of the most destructive myths of all. The perception is that our tax system and our government disproportionally helps the less affluent at the expense of the wealthy. In fact, the U.S. government spends $400 billion a year on tax policies intended to help families save and invest. In 2010, the wealthiest 5 percent of taxpayers averaged a net benefit of $95,000 each, while the bottom 60 percent received an average benefit of $5 each.

And all of these policies over the last 35 years have led to more poverty in this country and greater income inequality. The Gini coefficient is commonly used as a measure of inequality of income or wealth and is accepted as a fair method to compare income inequality in different countries. According to America's Gini coefficient of 0.450, the U.S. ranks near the extreme end of the inequality scale, comparable with Cameroon, Madagascar, Rwanda, Uganda and Ecuador. China is significantly more equal than the U.S. with a Gini coefficient of 0.415, and India is leagues ahead of the U.S. on income inequality, with a Gini coefficient 0.368. Even Russia is less unequal than the U.S., at 0.422 Gini.

So here we are with the highest number of poor since we began keeping records, a shockingly unacceptable level of income inequality, wages that are stagnant or going down for millions of American workers, politicians who denigrate those who need help as "takers", and we chose this moment to further cut budgets and social services and jobs with the sequestration.

The promise of America is being undermined by policies that have decimated the middle class in this country. And the more we let people slip out of the middle class, and then refuse to give them a hand up, the weaker our democracy gets. Millions of families are juggling bills for the basics of life, knowing they can't keep up, yet our politicians aren't working towards solutions. And until we face these issues of rising poverty and rising income inequality, of stagnating wages and a shrinking middle class, we are not going to have an American Spring. We are told that every child growing up in America has a decent chance at making a good living and having a comfortable life. But that dream does not exist anymore for millions of Americans. And if we are going to keep the promise of the American Dream for our children, we must come together, roll up our sleeves, make some hard decisions and begin to help the millions of vulnerable and struggling families all across this country.