For Jacob Kornbluth, the making of the new documentary “Inequality for All” didn’t just hit close to home because of the distance he had to travel from his home in Berkeley, California to the UC Berkeley campus to settle into the back of Robert Reich’s Wealth and Poverty class. The son of a single mother who raised a family of four on a salary of less than $15,000 a year, Kornbluth had been deeply unsettled by the income gap that’s been growing incrementally larger year by year over the past three decades.
After meeting the former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration while working on a series of shorts for the progressive site MoveOn.org, he knew Reich, with a wicked sense of self-deprecating humor and unparalleled understanding of the American economy, would be compelling in front of the camera. Still, as thorough as Reich could be, there’s no way Kornbluth could put a single face to a subject as vast as income inequality. But after taking his eye off Reich to look at those watching the lectures, he quickly realized he didn’t need to look far to find others.
“Sitting in his classroom, you see the faces of those kids and you’re like what are they thinking?” says Kornbluth, whose film covers Reich’s course from start to finish during the spring of 2012. “Are they worried about the world that they’re going to go into? Are they idealistic or are they cynical? Is anybody struggling with money issues themselves and thinking about those issues right now in the class as he’s talking about it?”
All Kornbluth needed to do was look a few rows away to find Moises Frias, whose recent unemployment led him to pursue his education, with his wife Deborah becoming the primary breadwinner in the family with a low-paying job at Costco. As Deborah asks the question, “How do you build wealth?” noting that the two routinely carry less than $100 in their bank account, the couple with two children to take care of illustrates how working families have seen their income and jobs steadily decline as CEOs take greater pay and jobs move overseas or simply disappear thanks to technology.
“The actual stories of real people have always influenced the way I view the large [economic] problems,” says Reich. “Jake very cleverly found some people who were taking the course, older students and one thing led to another.”
The result is a documentary that is unusual in the sense that it only has one official expert, but a wealth of firsthand experience to illustrate the points Reich is making, demonstrating how America hasn’t had a prosperous middle class since the 1970s, a fact that’s been masked by the entrance of women into the workforce, longer hours for those already working and the proliferation of borrowing for home ownership. Armed with vivid graphics from Brian Oakes that bring Reich’s many statistic-based analogies to life, “Inequality for All” makes such concepts easy to digest. Yet it is the testimony of folks such as the Frias and Nancy Rassmussen, a longtime Republican who is being swayed to join a union after a series of paycuts at work, that ultimately make the film such a gripping education.
“I never got to go a class like that in my college career,” Kornbluth says with a laugh now, hoping that “Inequality for All” will serve as such a class for the rest of America.
“Inequality for All” is now in theaters.