Part of the American myth that has nourished generations of its citizens is that you can start on the bottom rung of the ladder and, through hard work, climb as far as your abilities will allow.
But, the evidence compiled by Bill Moyers for his latest PBS documentary, "Minimum Wage," suggests that in the current economy, if you're forced to start on the bottom rung, chances are you're going to stay there.
This hour, which will be on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, tonight at 9 o'clock, focuses on several people in Milwaukee. Like Baltimore, Milwaukee has been hailed as a Renaissance city, not just because of its renewed downtown, but also because it has attracted the type of small industries that are supposed to be the backbone of the country's future manufacturing economy.
But what Moyers finds in his interviews with workers, officials and observers of the economic scene is that while Milwaukee can boast of creating thousands of jobs, most of them are at wages far below what people need to maintain their previous standard of living, jobs that offer no benefits and little hope of advancement.
The story of earnest assembly-line workers getting laid off after years, maybe decades, with the same company has been told before. But Moyers tells what happened to them as they encountered first the apparent economic expansion of the '80s and then the recession of the '90s.
First you meet Steve, who lost a $12 an hour job that afforded him a nice two-bedroom apartment. Now he works as a security guard at $4.50 an hour. Most weeks he doesn't even get 40 hours of work. No benefits. He pays $210 for a room off someone's basement with a microwave in the corner.
He's got a solid, professional resume filled with all sorts of manufacturing experience, but he gets no takers as he spends his spare time taking the bus to peddle his wares around Milwaukee.
Tony lost his job with Milwaukee's biggest employer, Briggs and Stratton, the manufacturer of small engines which, like so many American companies, is building plants where labor is cheap, Mexico.
He and his wife, Terry, were raising their children in a new house when he got laid off. She's trying to sell cosmetics that cost her $1,300 up front. He's helping out an aunt who's renovating a house. The job offers he gets pay $5 or $6 an hour, tough to take when you've got a mortgage of more than $800 a month. Terry stops by a church-run operation to pick up a free box of food.
Mike describes himself as a hard-working middle-manager for a chain of nursing homes. Laid off, now he's a full-time job-seeker. They still have the nice house in the suburbs for their two daughters, but their savings are being drained and now he's decided to lower his sights to a pay of about $40,000 a year, well below the $60,000 he used to make.
There is a subtle but distinct variance in attitude at the home of the one black family Moyers visits. Claude and Jackie both lost their manufacturing jobs in the '80s. He's a $6.50 an hour waterproofer. She sells real estate. They are struggling, but there is none of the dread and despair, the sense of betrayal, that pervades the houses of the others interviewed.
Maybe that's because the American myth is different if you grow up black. There was never any assumption that one rung would lead to another, never any promise that things would get better. You knew it was going to be a tough struggle from day one. And you certainly didn't expect life to be fair.
While "Minimum Wage" includes interviews with some state and local officials and business owners, it gives only a brief overview of the situation that has led to these hardships, to the loss of American jobs with American companies to overseas markets. It would have been nice to have seen the Briggs and Stratton plant in Mexico, to have met the workers there.
What this hour mainly does is what Moyers does best -- it puts a face on the dry statistics. It shows that the reduction in the standard of living which comes when the Titanic of the U.S. economy hits the iceberg of global economic realities results in actual casualties. It's not just some figures on a piece of paper, but a painful reality in many lives.
By many global standards, these people are not suffering. They have a roof over their heads, inside plumbing, enough to eat. But, psychologically, the Earth has shifted under their feet and they will never trust the future the same way again.