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How Far Is Your Family From Homelessness?

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Families facing homelessness as safety net collapses

Much can be said about the spot-on documentary “ Two American Families” which aired recently on PBS. My dream: a mandatory screening for policymakers across the land so they could witness the deterioration of the American Dream. At the very least, I urge you to watch it.

Of particular value and interest is the rare look at the same families, Terry and Tony Neumann, Jackie and Claude Stanley, and their children over a period of 22 years. It’s a treasure trove of examples of what happens when poverty seeps in like water in the basement, gradually undermining the family foundation.

Milwaukee, a perfect choice—mid-sized All American City. Not Detroit, Los Angeles or New York. Middle-of-the-road Milwaukee, home of “It Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This” Old Milwaukee Beer, the proud city of brewskies, brats and once a bushel of union wage jobs.

The subject of abject poverty and its incessant side effects rarely gets a thorough, personal treatment. Watching the steady deterioration of the Stanley and Neumann families as their economic security dwindled was, to those of us who’ve worked in this “field” for too long, painfully predictable but worth the agony because it validated the true cost of our cheapskate economy where average wages have plunged since 1973.

For those puzzled by the decline of public schools, neighborhoods, the American worker, marriage, and life in general, let me connect the dots: when families fall apart as they tend to do when facing draconian financial ordeals, no matter one-parent or two, it gets ugly. The kids most typically struggle in school and at home. Neighborhoods feel the fallout, as do schools. A child’s potential, despite their parents’ best efforts to raise them with solid middle-class values, diminishes, often so gradually that no one knows their future’s gone till it’s too late, an element of the film that I was sadly glad they included.

“Two American Families” makes a pretty convincing case that if you weren’t born into the 1 percent, and a few things had gone wrong, there would’ve been no digging out for you, no matter how hard or for how long you worked. The film is infuriating. ( Alex Pareene, Salon)

Alex Pareene’s (and my) painful reality check to the unenlightened: the safety net is not there. Gone. As cities and towns across America—with soaring poverty and unemployment—grapple with Sequestration, slashed revenues and decaying infrastructures, local governments can’t figure out what to do with those households whose economic foothold in the American Dream has been stomped on by union-busting, “compassionate” conservatives espousing self-sufficiency.

Contrary to the “family values” crowd, both sets of parents played by the rules. As they reinforced bedrock tenets—work hard, study and get a good education, go to church, help your neighbor, believe in the possibilities—it was excruciating to watch as their lifestyles dissolved with each job loss and creditor call. Pernicious poverty crushes family life like an empty beer can.

The foreclosure debacle was a huge factor in both families’ troubles, even in the mid-9os. Then as now, banks force the homeowners, in this case the Neumanns, with 24 years of payments on their modest home, to foreclose and turn around to sell it for next to nothing.

A potential solution is being tested that assertive municipalities could use to stem the foreclosure tide. Eminent Domain might actually work to stabilize neighborhoods and hold off the rabid banks. We better hurry.

Grossly dysfunctional government seems poised to make life even tougher for the down-and-out. Food stamp cuts loom like a Category V hurricane. Housing and other human service budgets are in the grip of the Sequester Monster. And other than Senator Bernie Saunders, Rep. Jim McGovern and a handful of others, few lawmakers demonstrate the balls to stand up to this carnage.