If television helps provide viewers reference groups to compare themselves with, The Simpsons suggests working-class Americans can have a decent life:
The 1996 episode “Much Apu About Nothing” shows Homer’s paycheck. He grosses $479.60 per week, making his annual income about $25,000. My parents’ paychecks in the mid-’90s were similar. So were their educational backgrounds. My father had a two-year degree from the local community college, which he paid for while working nights; my mother had no education beyond high school. Until my parents’ divorce, we were a family of three living primarily on my mother’s salary as a physician’s receptionist, a working-class job like Homer’s…
The Simpsons started its 32nd season this past fall. Homer is still the family’s breadwinner. Although he’s had many jobs throughout the show’s run—he was even briefly a roadie for the Rolling Stones—he’s back at the power plant. Marge is still a stay-at-home parent, taking point on raising Bart, Lisa, and Maggie and maintaining the family’s suburban home. But their life no longer resembles reality for many American middle-class families.
Adjusted for inflation, Homer’s 1996 income of $25,000 would be roughly $42,000 today, about 60 percent of the 2019 median U.S. income. But salary aside, the world for someone like Homer Simpson is far less secure. Union membership, which protects wages and benefits for millions of workers in positions like Homer’s, dropped from 14.5 percent in 1996 to 10.3 percent today. With that decline came the loss of income security and many guaranteed benefits, including health insurance and pension plans. In 1993’s episode “Last Exit to Springfield,” Lisa needs braces at the same time that Homer’s dental plan evaporates. Unable to afford Lisa’s orthodontia without that insurance, Homer leads a strike. Mr. Burns, the boss, eventually capitulates to the union’s demand for dental coverage, resulting in shiny new braces for Lisa and one fewer financial headache for her parents. What would Homer have done today without the support of his union?
The purchasing power of Homer’s paycheck, moreover, has shrunk dramatically. The median house costs 2.4 times what it did in the mid-’90s. Health-care expenses for one person are three times what they were 25 years ago. The median tuition for a four-year college is 1.8 times what it was then. In today’s world, Marge would have to get a job too. But even then, they would struggle. Inflation and stagnant wages have led to a rise in two-income households, but to an erosion of economic stability for the people who occupy them.
This critique hints at broader patterns of how television depicts the working class. The 2005 documentary Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class discusses how television tends to minimize the difficulties of working class life. The Simpsons fits some of these patterns: Homer still somehow keeps working despite his mistakes and anti-intellectualism, the family does not really get ahead, and the family seems happy-go-lucky. Shows with working class characters rarely challenge the economic and social systems that constrain working class Americans.
Similarly, The Simpsons falls into the mold of many sitcoms in television history where there are happy endings and the characters end with good relationships. Despite all the controversy about the show in its early years, the show is at its heart a typical sitcom. While the show does poke fun at many people and aspects of American life, at its basis is a loving nuclear family living in a single-family home with Homer having a steady job. The Simpsons is not a critique of working class life in the United States. Perhaps the portrayal of Mr. Burns best critiques the systems that keep the Simpsons in place.
One place for wiggle room in this critique may be the location of Springfield. The show has been very careful to not reveal where Springfield is within the United States. Homer’s income might be meager but cost of living does differ by region.