"American Winter": Documenting the downturn

A Portland protest in "American Winter."

Last winter, filmmakers and brothers Joe and Harry Gantz decided to document the lives of eight families in Portland, Ore., living outside of the middle class during this economic downturn.

The filmmakers found their families by teaming up with the nonprofit social services organization 211 in Portland, monitoring and recording calls from families in need of social services. The film, "American Winter," turned out to be a very vivid snapshot of what life was like for many formerly middle-class families. Families that, amid the deepest valley of the economic downturn, were having trouble keeping it all together.


Harry Gantz said that a lot of the parents featured in the documentary tried to shield their kids from seeing the family struggle.

"But of course, the children can't be shielded from the water being turned off," he said. "So it affects them in deep, emotional ways, and has long-term impact on them in terms of their education, their self-worth -- all the things that parents worry about their kids having."

"This stress is what these families deal with every day, all day, and it filters down to the kids," said Joe Gantz. "And it really makes the quality of life really diminished."

In making the film, the brothers spent a lot of intimate time with the families -- in- and outside of their homes. The filmmakers said the families let them in because it was a way of showing the rest of the world what they were going through.

"I think a lot of these families feel like the world doesn't care about them," said Harry Gantz. "It's a full-time job not only to work, but also to navigate the social service system."

"We made the film because we felt that there was this economic discussion going on at every level, but it wasn't taking into consideration what was happening with real families all across this country," said Joe Gantz. "And we felt that if people could see how families were struggling, it would be easier to kind of connect with what's really going on in this country right now."

"American Winter" airs on HBO on Monday, March 18 at 9 p.m.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
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I had the biased view of the majority of people using public assistance as lazy people with no desire to work and taking advantage of tax dollars to live on. While scanning through channels I came across this documentary and it completely changed my perception of why public assistance is necessary and what a crisis the american middle class family is in. The in depth look of these families truly has opened my eyes. This documentary is well done and I recommend it highly.

Thanks Kai, I enjoy your show every day.

Since your program is usually engaged in esoteric economic issues involving billions if not trillions of dollars, or an irrelevant fluffy entertainment piece, was glad to hear this piece about folks for whom a thousand dollars is a lot. We need to be grounded, and reminded occasionally of those for whom marketplace is irrelevant. Good choice and thanks to Kai for handling so well. Perhaps there will be a follow-up after it airs, and further out as well. There are undoubtedly way too many who are successfully gaming the system rather than making an honest effort, but there are also undoubtedly way too many others who are honestly struggling but just not able to make it.

I have been listening to Marketplace for years, and while I have had my quibbles for the most part I have enjoyed it. But in the last year I am becoming increasingly annoyed, and now angry, with the constant need for Kai to tell us just how tough it is out there, despite all those silly 'numbers' and 'trends' that have no basis on the real world. And this report really takes the cake. Kai associates this documentary with the 'real' economy, not the one imagined by us economists with our silly metrics. The world according to Kai, I gather, is one in which data has no role- only stories.

This documentary follow the tough times for a number of poor families. Okay. Sounds interesting. So why, Mr. Ryssdal, does this have anything to do with the PAST recession and where the economy is now? Do you think there were no poor people in 2006? Give me a break. There are always poor people, and you can always find someone who has stumbled on hard times. We should feel for these people, but don't tell me that this represents reality. It represents a selective choice of data, is all.

That whole beginning discussion at the start of this story shows the host to have limited analytical skills, and the editors to have seriously stumbled in their work. Someone- please fix Marketplace.

@toppers67 - while you are technically correct, as an economist, that the recent Great Recession ended in mid-2009 and we are not in the midst of any recession, the slow recovery feels to most people that we're still in the midst of one. That is because the economy has been treading water through the end of 2012, with net job gains just keeping up with work force growth (i.e., none of the 8.5 million jobs lost in the Great Recession have been recovered). The events in this documentary occurred in late 2011 - early 2012 with people who, in every generation since the end of WW II, had the background and tools to have a middle class American life. Then things went wrong and have been so for the past five years.

"There are always poor people, and you can always find someone who has stumbled on hard times." Sure, but to the degree which so many have seen their lives go south, I would suggest getting out and having a look around reality.

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