American dreams turn into nightmares in Moyers' 'New Economy'

January 08, 1992|By Susan White | Susan White,Knight-Ridder News Service

Let's assume for a moment that you are living the American Dream.

You own your own home. You are doing better financially than your parents did at your age. You assume your children will do better still.

And then, at 9 tonight, you sit down in your cozy living room and watch an hour of television that leaves the American Dream lying in pieces on your lap. And when you go to bed, you lie down with the new American Nightmare.

What if I lose my job?

What if my children can't find decent jobs?

What if the American Dream can't ever be put back together again?

The program that inspires these grim thoughts is Bill Moyers' latest exploration of America's rotting underbelly, which airs locally on channels 22 and 67.

Don't be fooled by the lifeless title "Minimum Wages: The New Economy," because Mr. Moyers is too smart to give us an hour of grim statistics. Instead, he uses real people to lead us into this complex subject.

For viewers who are still lucky enough to be living the American dream, the faces he has chosen are frighteningly like our own. For viewers who have already discovered the American Nightmare, the faces are frighteningly familiar. People who can work -- who most desperately want to work -- are now being forced into low-paying jobs. And they're being forced there through no fault of their own.

Milwaukee resident Tony Neuman was laid off from a manufacturing job that paid as much as $20 an hour. The company moved some jobs to Ohio, more to Mexico.

Now Mr. Neuman takes any job he can find. He has even gone back to school and learned new skills. But still he is stuck in $6-an-hour jobs. To make ends meet his wife gets food from a local charity. The Neumans tell Mr. Moyers of the good days, when they donated to such charities.

Mike, a white collar manager, is also looking for work. Eight months ago his company closed his division and his comfortable life fell apart. He may lose his home. His marriage is strained. And while he isn't yet selling burgers at McDonald's, he has begun applying for jobs that pay only a fraction of what he once made.

The point behind these hard luck stories is that they aren't isolated cases. Instead, the people Mr. Moyers visits have been caught in an economic trend that is already gnawing at the doorknobs of other unsuspecting families. A third of all jobs being created today pay poverty-level wages with no benefits, Mr. Moyers says. When politicians point to the new jobs they've created, it's time for us to ask what kinds of jobs they are.

Is there even a glimmer to be found in "Minimum Wages: The New Economy"?

Not really.

But viewers can take comfort in a bit of news shared by a Moyers spokeswoman. All of the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates were given advance copies of the show, she said.

Now, if we're lucky, they'll watch, and maybe even remember.

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