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FRONTLINE: Left Behind America

Airs Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV


Credit: Courtesy of FRONTLINE

Above: In "Left Behind America," FRONTLINE and ProPublica tell the intimate stories of one Rust Belt city's struggle to recover in the post-recession economy. The film reports on the economic and social forces shaping Dayton, Ohio, a once-booming city where nearly 35 percent now live in poverty. Support for "Left Behind America" is provided by WNET through the Chasing the Dream Initiative.

Ten Years After the Great Recession, FRONTLINE and ProPublica Go Inside One American City’s Fight to Recover

In the decade since the Great Recession, many American cities and towns have bounced back. But for some small and mid-size cities that were once hubs for innovation and manufacturing, economic recovery has remained elusive.

On Tuesday, September 11, in a documentary called “Left Behind America,” FRONTLINE and ProPublica ask why — and present an in-depth look at one such city, Dayton, Ohio, as its citizens continue to fight for economic revitalization ten years after the financial crisis.

From director Shimon Dotan ("The Settlers"), “Left Behind America” was produced in partnership with Chasing the Dream, a multi-platform public media reporting initiative from WNET in New York that aims to provide a deeper understanding of both poverty and opportunity in American society.

Gripping and powerful, the documentary chronicles the lives and struggles of Dayton’s working poor as they chase the American dream in the new American economy.

Left Behind America | Preview

Intimate stories of one Rust Belt city’s struggle to recover in the post-recession economy.

As Dotan and correspondent Alec MacGillis of ProPublica explore in the film, Dayton was once the epitome of industry and ingenuity in the American heartland — “the Silicon Valley of its age,” author Mark Bernstein tells the documentary team, a birthplace of aviation and a center of the automotive industry.

Although Dayton’s job market has recently seen a resurgence, the jobs coming back to the city aren’t the high-wage jobs that used be there – and the poverty rate in Dayton has reached 34.5 percent, or nearly three times the poverty rate nationwide.

“The issue in Dayton is not how many people are employed, or how many people are unemployed; it's, ‘What kind of jobs do they have?’” says Paul Leonard, the city’s former mayor.

The film shows, in cities like Dayton – where many businesses that once employed thousands of people have shut down or moved elsewhere – part-time, low-wage work rather than full-time work with benefits has often become the new normal. And as a result, many families struggle to survive.

“The majority of people who come to our pantry work,” says Sunnie Lain, who helps to run one of the city’s food pantries. And yet, she says, “we’ve got families watering down soup and moms trying to figure out how to make a box of mac and cheese last two days.”

“We used to serve 150 families. We're now serving 350,” adds Lain’s colleague, Chris Davidson. “All I see is the need going up, and up, and up."

“We come here to eat, so the kids can eat at home,” one woman, whose husband works at a plastic factory, tells the film team at the House of Bread soup kitchen.

Related: ‘We Have Families Watering Down Soup’: Inside One City America Has Left Behind by Catherine Trautwein

As "Left Behind America" explores, in addition to the economic downturn, the city has also been hit hard by the opioid epidemic.

By early 2017, county coroner Dr. Kent Harshbarger was seeing so many overdose deaths that he was worried Mongomery County, which includes Dayton, would end up leading the nation in fatal opioid overdoses per captia.

“The system is being overwhelmed,” Dr. Harshbarger tells FRONTLINE, adding that he’s sometimes had to bring in extra storage equipment because the number of fatalities is more than the morgue’s coolers can handle.

Related: How Struggling Dayton, Ohio Reveals the Chasm Among American Cities by Alec MacGillis ProPublica

But despite the obstacles, many Dayton citizens are taking matters into their own hands — and focusing not just on surviving, but thriving.

“Dayton is not unique in the problems that we are facing. That is common among urban communities all across the United States,” says Jo’el Jones, a co-founder of Neighborhoods Over Politics. “But what is unique is that Dayton is still small enough to right some of these wrongs. We're not a New York City. We're not a Chicago. We're Dayton, Ohio.”

"Left Behind America" is the intimate story of one Rust Belt city’s struggle to recover in the post-recession economy — and an up-close look at how that struggle presents a challenge to us all. 

“Ultimately, the question is, how do we… truly address the suffering that's happening in these communities where jobs have disappeared?” Jacob Hacker, Director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University, tells FRONTLINE. “This is one of those grave challenges of the twenty-first century: figuring out how to construct a new form of solidarity around a vision of an economy that works for [a] broad cross section of Americans.”


Episodes of FRONTLINE become available for streaming on demand at during each broadcast.


FRONTLINE is on Facebook, Instagram, tumblr, and you can follow @frontlinepbs on Twitter. #frontlinePBS

Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is on Facebook, Instagram, and you can follow @chasingthedream on Twitter. #ChasingtheDreamPBS


A Middle America Productions Inc. film for WGBH/FRONTLINE in partnership with ProPublica. The producers are Paul Cadieux, Shimon Dotan, Nancy Guerin. The correspondent is Alec MacGillis. The senior producer is Frank Koughan. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.


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