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


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September 4, 2018
Anne Husted Manager, Public Relations & Communications, FRONTLINE

Left Behind America

Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018, at 10 p.m. ET / 9 p.m. CT on PBS & online | Twitter: @frontlinepbs #frontlinePBS
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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 10 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. 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, Krys 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.

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 that Mongomery County, which includes Dayton, would end up leading the nation in fatal opioid overdoses per capita.

“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.

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 21st 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.”

Left Behind America premieres Tuesday, September 11, at 10/9c on PBS and online at


Left Behind America is 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.

FRONTLINE, U.S. television’s longest running investigative documentary series, explores the issues of our times through powerful storytelling. FRONTLINE has won every major journalism and broadcasting award, including 89 Emmy Awards and 20 Peabody Awards. Visit and follow us on TwitterFacebookInstagramYouTubeTumblr and Google+ to learn more. FRONTLINE is produced by WGBH Boston and is broadcast nationwide on PBS. Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Major funding for FRONTLINE is provided by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Ford Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Abrams Foundation, the Park Foundation, the John and Helen Glessner Family Trust and the FRONTLINE Journalism Fund with major support from Jon and Jo Ann Hagler on behalf of the Jon L. Hagler Foundation. Support for Left Behind America is provided by WNET through the Chasing the Dream Initiative, with major funding from The JPB Foundation and additional funding from the Ford Foundation.

About Chasing the Dream
Chasing the Dream is a multi-platform public media initiative from WNET in New York on poverty and opportunity in America. It aims to provide a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society: what life is like below the poverty line and for the working poor, its impact on our economic security, and what has happened to the age-old dream of striving for a better life. We also highlight solutions: what has worked – and what is working – to bring people out of poverty, and what lessons we can learn for the future. Additional Chasing the Dream reporting can be found online and on our content partners: FRONTLINE, PBS NewsHour, NewsHour Weekend, MetroFocus, NJTV News, Long Island Business Report, Next Avenue, and public radio. Major funding for Chasing the Dream is provided by the JPB Foundation, with additional support from the Ford Foundation.  Learn more at Join the conversation on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

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