SWM-009: The Impact of the Great Recession on American Families and Social Services, with Filmmaker Harry Gantz

July 14, 2014 @ 11:29 pm

Social Work Matters podcast coverIn this episode, Communications Director Mary-Lea Cox Awanohara is joined by Professor Vicki Lens for a conversation with Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Harry Gantz. Gantz arrived at the School of Social Work on the last day of Capstone Week, but although he wasn’t physically present, a film he had made with his brother, Joe, had informed the students’ discussion all week long. The brothers’ film is called American Winter. It’s a documentary that first aired on HBO in 2013 and tells the personal stories of eight middle-class families in Portland, Oregon, who were hit hard after the economic downturn of 2007.

The students had watched the film as a group before dividing into teams to discuss this year’s capstone challenge that had been set by the School of Social Work faculty. Their assignment was to propose ways to help a New York City-based family that, just like the families in the Gantz brothers’ documentary, had been spiraling into poverty in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

The Capstone Workshop occurs at the end of every academic year and requires graduating students to conduct an analysis and evaluation of a case that exemplifies a pressing contemporary social work issue, referencing all they’ve learned over the past two years and using a variety of practice methods. Harry Gantz was the keynote speaker at the closing event for this year’s workshop, which took place at Miller Theatre.



  • Harry and Joe Gantz decided to call their film “American Winter” because the Arab Spring was going on when the film was in production and post-production—and they felt it was an apt description of the state of American society in the winter of 2011.
  • The brothers, who live in Los Angeles, had come to think of 211 (the number to call for refererrals to health, human and social services) as “ground zero for the emotional toll of the downturn” that took place in the wake of the Great Recession. They chose to make the film in Portland, Oregon, because Portland’s was the first 211 helpline center on the West Coast that expressed an interest in helping them out with their project.
  • Portland turned out to be “perfect place” for the film they had in mind in part because the staff handling 211 calls were so cooperative and in part because of the city’s diversity: the families calling into the 211 helpline “could have been anywhere in America.”
  • Films about the causes of the Great Recession—e.g., Inside Job—focus on how the Wall Street explosion happened rather than what its human toll has been, let alone the stress the crisis has placed on the nation’s social services. In the early days of their careers, Joe and Harry Gantz had created the hit HBO series Taxi Cab Confessions, which captured authentic conversations between New York City taxi drivers and their passengers. In American Winter, they hoped to capture the intimate thoughts and fears of individuals who were losing their jobs and homes for the first time.
  • The brothers camped out in Portland’s 211 offices for several months and were able to identify families they thought would make good interview subjects. They followed these families for between five to six months. Eight of the families made it into the final cut.
  • One of the Gantz brothers’ goals was to break down the stereotype of the kinds of people who receive social services in our country by showing their humanity. They hoped to “affect people’s minds and their dogma by affecting their hearts.”
  • Additionally, the brothers decided to include interviews with various experts on poverty, social services, and the state of the nation’s economy. For instance, Nick Hanauer, a venture capitalist based in Seattle, says it’s in everyone’s best interests to restore the middle class: “We’re all better off when we’re all better off.” They purposely called on experts from the Pacific Northwest because most of them aren’t known nationally—and they didn’t want prospective viewers refusing to watch the film because of who was in it.
  • Another goal of the film was to “get beyond the divisiveness that this issue is causing in American politics.” Regardless of political persuasion, everyone needs to prioritize finding solutions, be it raising the minimum wage or giving businesses greater incentive to keep jobs in America.
  • Gantz defended the film’s demographics to anyone who thinks he was trying to appeal to people on the right by putting a “white face” on poverty. Though none of the eight families he and his brother followed are Latino, the demographic they represent reflects the percentage of minorities that are in the general population and receive social services. Moreover, the point of the film is to show that unprecedented numbers of people across the country (including blacks—for instance, the film follows the story of Beatrice, a black woman who has done everything right but still fell into poverty and is struggling to support her four kids)—are going through hard times.
  • Besides showing the changing demographics of poverty, the brothers wanted to show that the country’s social services had experienced a sudden onslaught at a time when they were being cut back. On May 6, Harry Gantz attended a special screening of the film in Baltimore that was hosted by the Fuel Fund of Maryland and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health Department of Health, Behavior & Society. He learned that fuel subsidies for home heating have declined by a third since 2009, putting Americans on lower or fixed incomes at risk of freezing to death during harsh winters like this past one. Your average American, however, isn’t aware of this trend, he said.
  • Lens thought the film did an excellent job of connecting the interests of the two groups: lower-income families who are chronically poor and families for whom poverty is a new condition. Their interests aren’t opposed, she said, adding that she thought the brothers used statistics very well to round out the stories and show that each family is not an exception but part of a trend. Statistics help to provide context, she said. Gantz responded that stats and human stories go hand in hand, saying he would love to do screening tour with Robert Reich and his film, Inequality for All.
  • Gantz and Lens agreed it would be great to find ways to encourage poor people to vote and add their voices to politics. Pointing out that the poor are such a huge population now, Gantz wondered, rhetorically, if there was some way to start some Super PACS for them.
  • Gantz and his brother are still in touch with all of the families in the film. Those who fell from the highest economic levels (e.g., Paula and Ben) have found it easier to get back on track than those who were struggling somewhat to begin with, such as Jeanette and her son, Gunner—who still aren’t doing so well. TJ and Tara are doing somewhat better. TJ, who’d gotten a part-time job washing trucks, ended up meeting someone who had seen him in the film. That person offered him a job in the PODS franchise, a kind of mobile storage unit, which pays more than minimum wage and has health benefits, enabling Tara to go back to school part time.
  • Every single one of the film’s subjects will tell you that they’re doing better because of the services available and the help they got. Even though they were ashamed of having to rely on social services, that support proved critical in getting them back on their feet.
  • Harry and Joe Gantz’s next film will be about climate change. Again, they hope to humanize the issue and add a human perspective to the current political debate. American Winter was their first foray into making social action documentaries and has whetted their appetite for more.