Luskin Lecture Spurs Conversation on Poverty in America Event featured screening of documentary "American Winter" followed by panel discussion.

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By Alejandra Reyes-Velarde
UCLA Luskin student writer

On Tuesday, the Luskin School of Public Affairs held its first Luskin Lecture featuring a film screening and panel discussion about middle class Americans falling into poverty after the recession of 2008.

The documentary, “American Winter” attempted to dispel perceptions and stereotypes about people who face poverty. The film follows the lives of eight families in their struggle to search for jobs and resources as their financial debts continued to grow, making homelessness a possibility for their futures.

After the screening, Film Director Joe Gantz, Housing Advocate with Volunteers of America Orlando Ward, and Social Welfare professor Laura Abrams sat down with moderator Val Zavala of KCET to discussed the themes of the film with the audience.

Ward, who was homeless and spent 15 years on Skid Row before going on to become the Vice President of Operations at Midnight Mission said he found the film emotionally satisfying and well informed in pointing to solutions.

“(Being homeless) is the most dehumanizing situation to be in. The film captured the fact that these are people that can be your friends, your neighbors or your family,” Ward said.

Having lived with these families while making the film, Gantz said he saw the stress they went through to maintain basic needs like paying electric bills and feeding their kids.

“I think what you see in this film is that these myths about it being the people’s fault are anything but true. These families are incredibly resourceful and hard working,” Gantz said.

Gantz is known for being able to bring to light very personal and intimate moments between the people in the films. In American Winter, some of the most emotional moments for the audience and the panel included those depicting the children’s emotional turmoil over their parents’ wellbeing or how they might support their own families in the future.

Professor Abrams felt deeply moved by the children and said it highlighted the important topic of childhood development.

“They were hopeful, compassionate and empathetic…Although they were the most endearing to me, I felt their having to worry about their parents well-being was very sad,” she said. “On the more intellectual side, we know that cumulative stresses add up, affecting their neurological development and coping strategies. We have to think about where these children are going to be 20 to 30 years from now.”

The film addressed topics on a political level as well, using shocking statistics throughout the documentary revealing how money in America is distributed.

“The money is going to the top 10% and the middle class is disappearing. On top of that, new laws make it possible to pour unlimited amounts of money into elections. You begin to wonder if this system is able to be called democracy,” Gantz said.

Although he thinks the federal response to this crisis did some good, Gantz said he was not struck by the U.S. reaching out empathically to those in need. Instead, services and programs that benefited those in need were cut and those families were left in the dark, he said.

Ward said he does not think the American government can solve these types of problems on their own. Instead, we have to look at the third side and understand the personal responsibility in the situation, he said.

“The film was about the fragility of hope. I think the film captured where we are as a country right now. I think a lot of us were seeing the pillars this country was built on was hope.”

Professor Abrams concluded the event by noting that this type of discussion and the issues presented are exactly the type that UCLA Luskin programs aim to address. This event was part of the School’s “Season of Service” that is highlighting underserved populations and the many ways students, faculty, staff and alumni are working to build a better world.

Additional upcoming Season of Service events:

Tuesday, Oct. 28:

Tuesday, Nov. 4:

  • A discussion on Coordinated Entry Systems will be held at 5:30pm in the Public Affairs Building.

A highlight of the Season of Service is on Saturday, Nov. 15 when the Luskin School participates in the 2014 United Way Homewalk at Exposition Park – walking and running to end homelessness. Register online and start fundraising here.

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