Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger
While we the privileged, who have time for such things, argue about law, politics, and society from our individual perspectives, we can easily forget that the results of these arguments affect real people in their lives. In the present American discourse, curt slogans and political bombast rule the airwaves and the Internet. The consequences of arguments won and lost are often subsumed by the anger of the debate itself. I personally feel a great empathy for those people ground down by the decisions and actions of those with financial power who have influence on executive and legislative power. The result of this empathy is anger at what I see is the blindness of our corporate and political leaders towards the lives of average people and the deafness of those same leaders to the cries for help all around them.
On August 14, NBC’s Dateline presented a one-hour show on a town named Millen,GA, which has the highest unemployment rate in the State of Georgia; called “The Town That Jobs Forgot”. I watched it, with tears forming frequently, although the people of the Bible Belt in rural Georgia are not those I usually meet, or know well. My tears were for the human suffering it portrayed as visited upon ordinary people. These common folk have no idea that the “The American Dream” is but a myth invented to keep people on the treadmill of “getting ahead”. The “Dream” keeps them from realizing that to most of those who run this country, they and their lives have little meaning beyond providing grist for the mill of profit.
To me the show was an example of the “road to hell being paved with good intentions”, but then I admit my cynicism often informs my passion. I present my thoughts about this news story, its contents and what meanings I derive from it. However, since my role here is to act with fairness there will be ample links that present enough information for the reader to draw their own conclusions. This will include links to the actual program if you care to watch and decide for yourselves.
Millen is a town in Mid East Georgia, located about 44 miles from Augusta and 157 miles from Atlanta. Its population in July 2009 was 3,381, with a population change since 2000 of -3.2%. Demographically it is 47% Black, White 36% and Hispanic 17%. Its unemployment rate in March 2011 was 20.3%, whereas the average in Georgia was 9.8%. Its median household income in 2009 was $20,865; the median income for Georgia in 2009 was $47,590. Read more: http://www.city-data.com/city/Millen-Georgia.html#ixzz1VK6HTtO3 It is a relatively poor hamlet, which became worse off in the fiscal crisis of 2009, when some of the main industries in town moved away.
Dateline tells the story from the perspective of three women: Krystal, Kimberly, and Sandy. Krystal a mother of three owned and ran one of the two premier restaurants in town. Her husband was the maintenance supervisor for a local manufacturer. They had built their dream home, with a pool in 2002 and were living what seemed to be an upper middle class life. Kimberly is either divorced or a widow. She had worked for the local bank for 32 years and was a Vice President there. Sandy, a Black woman, had two teenaged children. She had been on welfare but found a well-paid factory job and moved her family into a nice house.
When the 2008, 9 financial crisis hit the bottom fell out for these three. The major factories in town began to move away or close because they were mainly in the moribund building industry. With the loss of these factories and jobs, Krystal had to shut down her restaurant and her husband lost his factory job. Kimberly was fired from the bank, which had eliminated 6% of its employees. Sandy lost her factory job and was forced to rent a much smaller home for her family. While stated obliquely all three of the women and their family’s began receiving unemployment benefits.
The show introduces us to Krystal’s daughter Whitley and Sandy’s daughter Shenice. Both are high school seniors and both were introduced as “A” students, whose dream is college. Shenice actually had a dream of becoming a Pediatrician. Kimberly meanwhile has gotten a job as a bank manager in another town and describes her relief at going beyond her problems, but admits to having a little more sympathy, than she previously had, for those in similar circumstances.
Krystal’s younger daughter becomes very sick and so she has to sign up the whole family up for Medicaid, embarrassedly, to pay her daughter’s medical bills. They had lost the husband’s health insurance with his job loss. Usually to be eligible for Medicaid you are also eligible for Welfare and Food Stamps. She has to tell her daughter Whitley that the family can’t afford to send her to The University of Georgia, where the girl had received early admission. During various camera takes, Whitley describes her shock at discovering that her family was just like poor people now, since she believed they were among the towns’ wealthiest families. She’s upset at not getting a new car for her sixteenth birthday. She also feels bad that she could not go to a “First Rate” College. Sandy’s daughter Shenice on the other hand, upset by her mothers struggles has abandoned the idea of college and plans to join the army after graduation over Sandy’s objections, to help her mother and sister survive. Meanwhile, Kimberly fired from the other bank fears she will have to “tap into” her 401k.
In the denouement, some jobs are returning to town in the form of the reopening of one plant, which is now paying the grateful few workers they’ve hired, minimum wage. Two hundred more jobs come in with the building, opening and staffing of a new prison. Krystal now reopens her restaurant, which though vacant for an unspecified time, seems to have remained hers and the “whole town” turns out to show its support on Mother’s day, where nary a black face is seen. Krystal’s husband has found a maintenance job. Sandy’s unemployment benefits have run out, but presumably, she is now on welfare and taking a job re-training course. She eventually finds a job. Kimberly has now found another job and is getting along, probably with her 401k still intact. At the finale, which is the High School Graduation we discover that Krystal’s daughter Whitley is going to Georgia Southern University and has gotten a full year’s scholarship.
We then see Sandy’s daughter Shenice, in cap and gown introduced as the class Salutatorian and making a moving speech on persevering through adversity. Shenice is still forgoing college for the Army and we are left to wonder how the future of this gifted young woman will play out. Sandy has found a job elsewhere. The announcer ends this tale with words about American’s facing adversity in these desperate times, but how through perseverance they will be able to overcome whatever comes their way.
Several things about this news report I found to be false and personally disturbing. Millen, GA is 64% Black and Latino and yet beyond the inclusion of one black women’s story, most background pictures show Whites alone. These two locally shot videos dealing with the unemployment problem illustrate that this is in line with local sensibilities. The first was a video produced by a Baptist Church and the second from a local newscast on the jobs crisis. 1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mMb-1r4oqt0 , 2.http://www2.wagt.com/news/2011/aug/12/2/millen-georgias-unemployment-rate-gets-national-at-ar-2267096/
All of the three families mentioned, were able to get through their fiscal crises only with the help of government benefits. Be it Unemployment Insurance, Food Stamps, Medicaid, and/or Welfare. This help from government programs was mentioned only in passing and their importance de-emphasized in the script. Given that the largest part of the political rancor and debate these days is over the desire to cut entitlement programs drastically, if not altogether, this de-emphasis is significant. Looked at in the best light it was an inadvertent omission by Dateline in their desire to add the most drama to the story. However, cynic that I am, I think it relates to either the cowardice of Dateline to confront the budget cutters, or a deliberate injection of the program’s producers political sensibilities.
That the producers of Dateline chose to focus on three women, two whites who were clearly from the towns upper class and a Black woman, who is shown as courageous, with a brilliant daughter, is to me a dishonest editorial decision. Were there no white families in this town barely existing above or below the poverty line, which may have been better examples? The dishonesty was in showing two white families with obvious resources to ride out this downturn, contrasted with a Black family of extraordinary individuals. This in no way diminishes my empathy for the White families shown, because clearly they too were in pain and disoriented by the economic situation. The connotation of the production is that Whites have the abilities and courage to persevere through hard times and that Black people persevere only by being extraordinary. The truth is that they could have easily shown white families disintegrating under the stress, but that would have conveyed a message about how the entire nation is in economic freefall.
Were it not for the already ravaged safety net programs in place, we would see massive upheavals in this country, as have occurred during the many other depressed times in our history. This program was perhaps originally conceived as being a program showing the harsh effects of our economic downturn, but then finding a warm hearted cause for hope, via hard work and perserverance of individuals. That in itself is a political statement.
I am clearly on the side of our country’s maintaining an adequate safety net and with it I believe that we should have single payer health care. The difficulty my side of this issue faces is that the media has ignored the good that these programs do and the necessity of having these programs to stave off complete societal disintegration. In this respect, I am a real Conservative because I want to stave off radical revolution and social upheaval. My greatest concern though is for all American’s brought low from this economic crisis, whatever their prior status. It is not an easy thing to raise a family by doing all the right things as preached by our “American Dream” mythology, on all media, then having those dreams shattered by forces beyond our control. I wonder what solutions those who would destroy our safety net offer, or don’t they bother to care? Are we really living in an “every person for themselves” type of country? Are the “freeing” of corporate prerogatives and the mythological free market really going to help many get through without starving, or perhaps banditry?
This is why as I was watching this story, I was both moved and annoyed. Watching any person in pain moves me, but while feeling the tears and warmth of empathy, my critical faculties remain intact. Perhaps some readers will suspect I am reading too much into this production. If so, there are links below to both Millen, GA and to the story itself if you care to research credibility and form your own opinions.
Millen, GA history, demographics etc.
The Dateline program divided by six commercial breaks:
Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger