American Winter Film Is Passionate and Devastating

American Winter is a film about families working their butts off to survive in an economy

that is supposedly recovering. Todd and I went to see it last Thursday at Regis University, where Energy Outreach Colorado had arranged a screening, and both of us thought it was a good film. Directors Joe and Harry Gantz listened to 211 calls in Portland to find the families they profiled. The parents in the movie get laid off and find new jobs that pay much less, they try to take care of their sick children, they cope with having their water and power turned off—one family even moved in with parents.

At times the film is heartbreaking, at other times inspiring. One girl had a chronic stomach problem, and because her mother was briefly out of work during her illness, the family received a $49,000 doctor’s bill. A man who was desperate for work so that his wife would not be the sole breadwinner was fired by a racist boss. He did finally get a reasonably well-paying job after someone recognized him from this film.

One theme running through the movie and the talk afterward was the ugly turn in attitudes toward the poor. Americans tend to blame the poor and homeless for their problems instead of considering how much housing costs have risen or how most of the new jobs created since 2008 are service jobs that pay minimum wage or a little better. I blame Reagan for this turn of events; he encouraged contempt for the poor with his talk of “welfare queens,” and it has only gotten worse since he left the presidency.

Federal Utility Assistance, 2009–2013

While doing research for the film, the Gantz brothers found that more than 1 in 4 workers in the private sector earn less than $10 per hour. When was the last time you tried to live on so little? Do you think you could make it, here in Denver where the vacancy rate for rentals is very low and costs are high?

What people don’t get is that “helping a poor family isn’t an act of charity. It’s converting a family you have to support into a family that can buy things from your company.”

Energy Outreach Colorado is a nonprofit that helps people pay their utility bills. The graph above shows the decline in federal funding for groups such as EOC—during a terrible recession.

The 211 service refers callers to organizations that provide a variety of services, including paying utility bills and finding housing. There is a 211 line in Denver staffed by people trained to find services in your part of the metro area, as well as a mobile phone app.