It's a visual no parent wants to picture: a child describing what it's like to live in a house with no power for lights, heat or cooking. For many middle-class American parents, it's hard to imagine their family ever facing a situation like that. But a new HBO documentary suggests that many seemingly prosperous parents are only a few misfortunes away from dark houses and empty refrigerators.
The film, American Winter, follows the personal stories of eight middle-class families in Portland, Ore., who were hit hard during the Great Recession. Once financially stable, they now find themselves struggling. Emmy Award-winning filmmakers Joe and Harry Gantz — known for their tell-all series Taxicab Confessions — show these families desperately trying to make ends meet during the winter of 2011, even as headlines everywhere indicate a recovery for America.
Diedre Melson, John Cox and Pam Thatcher are three of the parents featured in the film. All three are college-educated and at one point considered themselves middle class, a group the film refers to as the most endangered species in America.
Melson, Cox and Thatcher live in different neighborhoods, mingle in different circles and have different backgrounds. But in 2011 they all had one thing in common: Their financial struggle brought them to Portland's 211info emergency hotline.
"My husband, Brandon, went out to look for work, and I was stressing because I had very little diapers; I was worried about formula," Thatcher tells NPR. She is married with two young boys, and it was the first time she had found herself in need of assistance. "I went ahead and called [211info] and I was actually looking for help with rent or utilities."
For Cox, a housing crisis is what led him to seek help. American Winter shows him struggling to control his emotions when he has to ask his father for help paying the bills. Before he was laid off three years ago, Cox was an accountant who earned a nearly $60,000 salary. He had never really thought about social services or public assistance.
"I had a little bit of compassion for the folks [who rely on social services], but I never thought it would happen to me," he says. "In fact I was so oblivious to it, I didn't know how to go about getting the assistance."
As for Melson, she sometimes donated her plasma and often spent weekends picking up scrap metal to make ends meet.
Public And Private Shame
In American Winter, all three of these parents express a sense of shame at ending up in their current situation. "There's a stigma attached to people who ask for assistance," Melson explains. "People have the tendency to believe that there was something that you did to make yourself get in that situation and now you're begging, when in all actuality I don't think any of us here did anything particular to get into our situations. I think all of it was based on each of us basically losing our source of income."
Thatcher describes a different kind of stigma she felt during a trip to a church assistance center. She says people were talking about her wedding ring and her kids' clothing, suggesting that she was doing fine and didn't really need any help. "They sat right next to me and they were saying it as a normal conversation, as you and I are," she says. "And it killed me. It's already hard; it is already degrading. And for someone to sit there in a casual conversation and talk bad about you, it hurt me so much more."
But public shame wasn't the only source of pain for these unexpectedly impoverished parents. The sting of being unable to afford things for their children was particularly harsh: At one point in the film, Melson is shown talking with her son about a wrestling tournament he was invited to. It's a national competition in Nevada — and it costs $500.
"Unfortunately, he was not able to make it," Melson tells NPR. "And that has to be one of the hardest things as a parent, is to not to be able to provide those things for your child. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity has gone by because you can't afford it. You feel like a failure."
Thatcher felt a similar sense of shortcoming around the holidays. "I know that we didn't have a Christmas," she says. "I know that I couldn't buy one gift. That was one Christmas that you can't buy your children anything, and that hurts so bad."
With so much shame surrounding their situations, some might wonder why American Winter's families agreed to be filmed.
"This is hard," Cox says, "but we're not doing this just for us. This is not happening just in Portland or just in Houston or just in Philadelphia. This is happening nationwide. And a lot of people think it's just them."
Melson adds that she wants people to talk about their struggles "especially if it's happening to them. We want them to become a community and to feel OK looking for help. Nobody asked to have this happen to them."
Still 'In Limbo'
Some of the parents are in better financial situations now than they were when the film was shot, but that doesn't mean they have regained their spot in the middle class. Cox, for instance, has managed not to lose his home to foreclosure — yet.
"We're still in the house," he says. "But right now I'm in limbo. I don't know where I'm going to be in 30 days. I've never considered it my house; I've always considered it my kid's house. Geral has Down syndrome, and I know I have to do something for him for when I'm not around, you know, when he gets older. And I gotta do things to make his life more comfortable. And I sit and worry about my kid. What's going to happen to him in 30 years when I'm not around? That is an absolute scary thought for me."
Melson and Thatcher murmur their agreement.
"It's really demoralizing," Cox says, "even though I still have the ability to, more or less, you know, keep my head up and think, 'Well, tomorrow's another day.' "
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
If the recent job numbers showing a slight recovery are good news, it's lost on the many Americans still struggling with troubles brought on by the Great Recession. That's brought home in a new documentary airing this month on HBO called "American Winter." Emmy Award-winning filmmakers Joe and Harry Gantz followed eight families. They were all once solid members of the middle class.
Now, they're faced with making impossible financial decisions like whether to use their last bit of money to keep the lights on in the house or food in the refrigerator. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates spoke with three of the parents featured in the film.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: "American Winter" draws you in right at the start. For most of us, there's nothing more heart wrenching than a child's suffering.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: With the no lights, it was hard to get around the house and since there was no electricity, we couldn't cook our food.
BATES: It's a visual no parent wants to picture and for many middle class American families, one that no parent ever expected to happen. But when a family falls out of the middle class, it finds itself struggling to survive.
DEIRDRE MELSON: You can donate plasma every other day. I like donating plasma less than going scrapping. You know, it's just something that I do to make ends meet and try to make sure that we're not hungry.
JOHN COX: I've been working since I was 10, 12 years old. Anyone worth their salt wants to work. I'll scrub toilets. I'm not above doing any kind of work.
PAM THATCHER: I did not see ever being in this position ever. I told myself me and my husband are hardworking people. We would never have to ask for help ever.
BATES: That's Deidre Melson, John Cox and Pam Thatcher. These three Portland area parents are all college-educated and at one point considered themselves middle class, which the film calls America's most endangered species. Deidre, John and Pam live in different neighborhoods, mingle in different circles and have different backgrounds, but two years ago, they all had one thing in common.
Their financial struggle brought them to Portland's 211 info emergency hotline. Pam Thatcher remembers the day she had to make that call.
THATCHER: My husband, Brandon, went out to look for work, and I was stressing because I had very little diapers. I was worried about formula. So I went ahead and called them and I was actually looking for help with rent or utilities.
BATES: John, throughout this documentary, "American Winter," you're dealing with the housing crisis, too. You're trying to keep your home, your ranch, and catch up on bills. Let's play a clip of that.
(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "AMERICAN WINTER")
COX: Talking to my dad. I had to call him up and have him pay the electric bill. It's not easy. You're a 50-year-old man and you have to call your dad to pay the electric bill.
BATES: You were an accountant before you got laid off three years ago. Before that happened, what were your views about people who had to receive public assistance or depend on social services?
COX: Well, I had a little bit of compassion for the folks, but I never thought it would happen to me. In fact, I was so oblivious to it, I didn't know how to go about getting the assistance.
BATES: All three of you said, at one point, I'm so ashamed that I've ended up this way. Despite the fact that we all know we're in a terrible economy, you still feel ashamed. Why is that? Deirdre, why don't we start with you?
MELSON: There's a stigma attached to people who ask for assistance. People have the tendency to believe that there was something that you did to make yourself get in that situation and now you're begging, when in all actuality, I don't think any of us here did anything particular to get into our situations. I think all of it was based on each of us basically losing our source of income.
BATES: You each have said that you feel sometimes, that people are looking at you, making assumptions about you. Pam, you went to a church assistance center at one point to get diapers for your children and a couple of other things. And afterward, you talked about how agonizing that was for you.
(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "AMERICAN WINTER")
THATCHER: People are talking about me, you know. Why is she here? Her children are dressed nice and look at that big wedding ring on her finger. She's obviously married. She's probably doing fine and...
BATES: Were you really feeling that people were sort of giving you hostile glances because they thought, well, she doesn't need it as bad as I do and so why is she even in here?
THATCHER: Yes, of course. They sat right next to me and they were saying it as a normal conversation. And it killed me. It's already hard; it is already degrading. And for someone to sit there in a casual conversation and talk bad about you, it hurt me so much more.
BATES: Deirdre, you mentioned a few times in the film about some of the things, the extras you thought you would be able to provide for your children still aren't within reach. I want to play a clip with you and your son, Jalean, talking about that.
(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "AMERICAN WINTER")
MELSON: Why were you invited to go to Nevada?
JALEAN: About wrestling?
MELSON: Are those regionals?
JALEAN: No, for nationals.
MELSON: You have to have your money in by June, and how much?
MELSON: Oh, my god. How long you guys gonna be there?
JALEAN: For a week.
BATES: Were you ever able to come up with enough money to send Jalen to his tournament?
MELSON: Unfortunately, he was not able to make it. And that has to be one of the hardest things as a parent, is to not to be able to provide those things for your child. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity has gone by because you can't afford it. You feel like a failure.
THATCHER: And I'm sure with all of you guys, too. I know that we didn't have a Christmas. I know that I couldn't buy one gift. That was one Christmas that you can't buy your children anything, and that hurts so bad, you know.
BATES: This is what we hear from the parents, over and over in the film, that children shouldn't have to worry about money, they shouldn't have to be making these sacrifices. John, you, at the end of the film, were in danger of losing your home and then you got a reprieve, a short amount. Has that made a difference?
COX: Well, we're still in the house, but right now, I'm in limbo. I don't know where I'm going to be in 30 days. I've never considered it my house. I've always considered it my kids' house. Geral has Down Syndrome and I know I have to do something for him for when I'm not around, you know, when he gets older.
And I got to do things to make his life more comfortable. And I sit and worry about my kid. What's going to happen in 30 years when I'm not around and, you know, that is an absolute scary thought for me. It's really demoralizing, even though I still have the ability to, more or less, you know, to keep my head up and think, well, tomorrow's a new day.
BATES: Pam, Deirdre, John, thank you very, very much for taking the time to talk with us today and good luck to each of you.
MELSON: Thank you for having us.
THATCHER: Thank you.
COX: Thanks for having us.
BATES: Yeah, thank you.
MONTAGNE: That's Karen Grigsby Bates speaking with Deirdre Melson, John Cox and Pam Thatcher of Portland, Oregon. They're all parents featured in the HBO documentary "American Winter." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.