The Simpsons portrayed a (rare?) comfortable working-class family life

If television helps provide viewers reference groups to compare themselves with, The Simpsons suggests working-class Americans can have a decent life:

Photo by Jonathan Petersson on

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.

The (inaccurate?) depiction of Elgin, Illinois in Roseanne

The TV show Roseanne is set in a fictional town modeled after communities in northern Illinois:

Show star Roseanne Barr told the Hollywood Reporter in February that the working class sitcom’s fictional setting of Lanford is based on Elgin. The producers even conducted a focus group in Elgin before embarking on what is the 10th season for the show, which last had new episodes in 1997.

Fictional, gritty Lanford may be modeled after Elgin, but local residents said it’s not really an accurate reflection of their hometown…

Southwest side resident Vicky Lundy, 53, said she’s picked up on some geographical errors in placing where Elgin would be, particularly in relationship to Chicago. One episode implied that Chicago was so far away that one of Roseanne’s granddaughter’s couldn’t afford to buy a bus ticket to the big city. Another has a branch of the University of Illinois in St. Charles, which has a U of I extension, not a campus.

Kim Lang, 41, of South Elgin noted that on the “Roseanne” reboot, “there are no Hispanics anywhere, which is a core element (of the Elgin area).”

Three quick thoughts:

  1. Rarely have I seen residents of or local officials in communities depicted on television suggest that the TV portrayal was accurate. It is hard to know whether local residents are unable to see their community from a birds-eye perspective, whether locals only perceive television as promoting negative ideas, or whether television shows cannot easily capture community life (see #2).
  2. Many television sitcoms and dramas involve a limited number of characters and do not actually depict much of the larger community. The focus of the show is Roseanne’s family, not the larger community of Lanford. In many such sitcoms, the family rarely leaves the inside of their house or their yard. On the whole, I do not think television shows are usually set up to portray a whole community (outside of some establishing shots and occasional references or interactions).
  3. Working-class communities are not depicted much on television and are not necessarily depicted favorably. (For example, see the documentary: Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class.) Many sitcoms revolve around middle- to upper-class families that have sizable homes, rarely work, and encounter certain issues but not others.

As a thought exercise, we could think about what a television show would need to be to truly capture life in Elgin, Illinois. A more diverse set of characters? Regular interactions out in the community at known sites? Elgin is a large suburb of over 100,000 people and while it has a more traditional downtown, it is also quite sprawling. Could an accurate depiction fit with typical conventions of how television shows are made?

Creative class fared better in economic crisis than working and service classes

Richard Florida discusses how the creative class weathered the economic crisis better than blue-collar workers:

The crisis hit hardest at blue-collar workers, while creative class workers and metros with higher shares of creative class jobs fared considerably better. The unemployment rate for creative class workers, which was 1.9 percent in 2006 before the crisis, increased to just 4.1 percent in the years following the recession’s official end — an increase of 2.2 percentage points. The unemployment rate for workers in blue-collar jobs increased from from 6.5 percent before the onset of crisis to 14.6 percent at its end, more than three times higher than that for creative class workers and a jump of more than 8 percentage points. The unemployment rate for workers in routine service jobs increased from 5 percent to 9.3 percent at its end, more than double that for creative class workers a 4.3 percent jump…

Even after controlling for all those things, the analysis found that having a creative class job dramatically reduced a person’s chance of being unemployed over the course of the crisis. All others things being equal, we found that having a creative class occupation reduced an individual’s probability of being unemployed by 2.0 percentage points between 2006 and 2011. Having a creative class job had a bigger effect on the probability of being unemployed than holding a college diploma and about the same effect as having an advanced degree…

The study also found that while unemployment rates were lower in metros with higher shares of creative class jobs, the biggest benefit for creative class workers came in regions with lower shares of creative class jobs. The impact of having a creative occupation on the likelihood of being unemployed, the study found, was slightly stronger in metropolitan areas with lower shares of creative workers…

These results, along with our findings related to the other major occupational groups, are indicative of a structural change taking place in the U.S. economy. This shift is characterized by high — and growing — unemployment in Working Class occupations, whereas the relative position of creative workers improved in the years following the recession.

These final sentences are key: the economic crisis exposed some of the larger structural issues in the American and global economy. The creative class, those with education, social status, and access to the white-collar and high-tech jobs often found in certain metropolitan areas that are producing a lot of wealth, did better in the economic crises. It didn’t mean that no creative class jobs were lost but relatively fewer jobs were lost. On the other hand, more working-class jobs were lost. On top of this, the working and service class didn’t have the same resources to weather the economic storm. When the value of investments, such as housing values and retirement plans, shrunk and jobs dried up, there wasn’t much to fall back on.

This situation is not likely to be fixed quickly. For example, it takes time to get education and only roughly a third of American adults have a college degree. It also takes time for a broader economy to shift away from a service and consumption oriented economy to one that creates more high-paying, information-age jobs.

Biden and Ryan redefine working class for their own purposes

Both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions featured efforts to portray their leaders as having blue-collar roots. However, as this analysis points out, these testimonies were working with altered definitions of what it means to be blue-collar.

Merriam Webster’s defines blue-collar labor as “of, relating to, or constituting the class of wage earners whose duties call for the wearing of work clothes or protective clothing.” But the Washington definition of blue-collar is different. From an analysis of punditry, the qualities that define blue collar are being white, being male, being religious — especially Catholic — being from the interior, and having mainstream cultural interests totally unrelated to social class, such as “liking hockey” or “liking 1970s rock music.”…

Actual Blue-Collar Credentials: “My dad never wore a blue collar,” Biden said in June. “Barack makes me sound like I just climbed out of a mine in Scranton, Pennsylvania carrying a lunch bucket. No one in my family worked in a factory.”…

Blue-Collaryness Rating: Worn Chambray. “This campaign, Biden — with his blue collar background — is focusing on helping Obama where the president tends to be weak: in appealing to blue collar and swing state voters,” the Associated Press reported Friday. “One of the weapons used by Obama to court white men is Vice President Joe Biden, who has a kinship with blue-collar voters, particularly in critical battleground states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan,” The Dallas Morning News said Thursday…

Washington Blue-Collar Credentials: Ryan is Catholic, and from a state where there are farms. Ryan likes Led Zeppelin, which is somehow blue collar despite inspiring countless blacklight posters in dorms nationwide. He has other hobbies that require equipment you buy in malls. “I was raised on the Packers, Badgers, Bucks and Brewers. I like to hunt here, I like to fish here, I like to snowmobile here. I even think ice fishing is interesting,” Ryan said on August 12. “I got a new chainsaw… It was nice. It’s a Stihl.” Homeowner Stihl chainsaws run between $179.95 and $359.95 at the local Janesville Stihl dealer. “He is very grounded in roots that weren’t so glamorous coming up in life,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told PBS before the Republican National Convention.  “And the American people will hear his story tonight, hear how he lost his father and had to work hard and assume hourly wage jobs when he was young.” Yes, friends, Ryan’s Dickinsian youth involved a part-time job at McDonalds. (In fairness, it does not appear that anyone in Washington has ever claimed Eric Cantor has “blue collar appeal.”)

This helps illustrate several points about social class in the United States:

1. Categories of social class can often be quite fuzzy. Often, income is used to mark off different classes but social scientists and the public themselves have difficulty deciding where exactly these boundaries should be drawn. For example, we could also look at how Romney and Obama talk about and promote middle-class values yet neither are currently living middle-class lives according to their income.

2. Social class is not just about having a certain level of income; there is also a cultural dimension, certain behaviors and tastes associated with different classes (a la Bourdieu). For both Biden and Ryan, it sounds like they want to claim some of these cultural markers which plenty of Americans might also share.

3. I wonder how much the media and American voters want to discuss such claims from politicians about social class. Compared to some other countries, Americans are more reluctant to talk about class and sometimes talk and act like it doesn’t even exist. For example, Rick Santorum said on the campaign trail that he didn’t even want to use the term middle-class because it is divisive.

When looking at the minimum wage, should we consider whether a poorly paying job is better than no job?

I ran into an argument about whether the minimum wage should be raised in the United States and it got me thinking about the reasons behind the argument for raising it. To start, here is some of the debate:

One of the harshest realities of America’s slow economic recovery — and there are many — is the fact in spite of modest job growth, pay for workers is falling. Year over year, average inflation adjusted wages have dropped by 0.6 percent for all private sector employees. They’re down a full 1 percent for non-supervisors — your retail salespeople, your shop floor factory workers, your cashiers. In other words, even as the overall employment picture has improved in fits and starts, the working poor are getting poorer.

Some believe this is a sign of the recovery’s weakness, and today the National Employment Law Project used it as a rallying point to call for a higher minimum wage. According to their analysis, which is current through the beginning of 2011, while the bulk of job losses during the recession affected medium wage earners, such as paralegals and nurses, most of the hiring post-recession has been for low-paid service work. Middle class jobs, they argue, have been replaced with poverty wage jobs…

But here’s the alarming part. All of this might simply mean that the same forces that caused wages to stagnate before the recession will make them stagnate after the recession. It’s just another sign that income inequality is here to stay, unless something radical changes that will give working class families a larger slice of the pie. Will raising the minimum wage do that? It might help on the margins, certainly for the 3.8 million workers who earn it.  (I’m not one of those who believes that a higher minimum wage actually kills jobs. This great, short Slate piece from 2004 explains why.) But the vast majority of American workers won’t see much benefit from it. Rather, fixing the wage problem means we need to think about the fundamental problems skewing income growth towards the top, from spiraling CEO pay to an inadequate education system.

Falling wages are taking us back to where we were before the recession. For many workers, that’s not a good place. And there aren’t any easy ways out of it.

Of course, arguments for raising the minimum wage often focus on the idea that it is not enough money to live on. Hence, calls for a living wage that is more closely tied to a more steady standard of living.

But I wonder if there isn’t a bigger issue at work here: the idea that low-paying jobs may not be worth having. In other words, people might be better off without a minimum wage job. The low-paying job may be helpful in securing a new job (you don’t want an unemployment gap in your resume) or moving up but too many of these low-paying jobs pay so little that employees may not be able to do the things they need to do to move up (move to a new area where jobs are more plentiful, own a reliable car to expand job prospects, enroll in classes, etc.). Additionally, a number of these jobs don’t really offer chances for advancement; if they do, it is limited to a small group of workers. So these workers can get trapped in a cycle of low-paying positions that meet some basic needs to survive but never provide the hope to do something better. This is reflected in books like Nickel and Dimed: it is hard enough to do the daily grind, let alone find some light at the end of the tunnel in terms of a better-paying job.

In this sense, making a small adjustment to the minimum wage wouldn’t seem to do much. It might offer a little more money but this is likely eroded quickly by inflation (past and future). What we then need is more jobs that provide a higher standard of living and give more employees the opportunity to move on and up to something better.

(I realize there is a lot more going on here. But I wanted to get at the idea that simply having a job isn’t a guarantee of having the chance to reach the American Dream. Being willing to work doesn’t necessarily guarantee a good outcome. This also reminds me of Katherine Newman’s book No Shame In My Game about the working poor who want to work but can’t access the jobs that would lead to success.)

Social class, meritocracy, and the latest Royal wedding

Amidst all of the furor, one commentator explores the possible consequences of the marriage of the Eton-schooled Prince William and the middle-class Kate Middleton:

The Daily Telegraph published one of the more entertaining pieces about the intended wedding. Toby Young gave the new parents-in-law, Charles and Camilla, hints on how to behave at a middle-class dinner party (“bring a bottle of wine”). But Toby Young’s father was the renowned sociologist Michael Young. I doubt if he would have been amused by young Toby’s class-ridden article.

In a classic book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, back in 1958, Young père invented a new word. As the Oxford English Dictionary confirms, “meritocracy” is the only concept by a British sociologist to enter the English language since Darwin’s camp-follower, Herbert Spencer, back in the 19th century, thought of the phrase “survival of the fittest”.

Young didn’t welcome the prospect of an all-powerful meritocracy. He feared it would leave behind a disaffected, leaderless working class. He hoped for a revolt against the triumphant meritocrats. He never reckoned that Eton would help to man the barricades.

Could any sociologist have invented an apter surname for the bride-to-be than “Middleton”, with its undertones of Middle England and middle class? Till now, meritocracy has, in practice, surged ahead. Kate’s parents, Michael and Carole, are entrepreneurial examples. Politically, the marker was Tony Blair’s invention of New (ie Middle Class) Labour…

The upshot, as in the United States, is that an ever increasing proportion of the population will hold some kind of degree. Partly because of this, most Americans now think of themselves as “middle class”. In Britain, a sizeable segment still think of themselves as “working class”, because their fathers, or even grandfathers, were working class. But this curious nostalgia is fast fading.

The physical evidence of meritocracy is all around the commuter-land fringes of every town and city in Britain. In Berkshire, where Kate Middleton and David Cameron grew up, estates of “executive homes” have spread like Japanese knotweed. They are sneered at by those who can afford a bit more, just as the interwar pebbledash semis were sneered at. That’s how Britain is. Class obsesses the British, and especially the English, in the same way that race obsesses Americans.

Chalk one up for British sociology: the coining of the word “meritocracy.”

This commentary comes close to asking a question that I have always wondered about: what would society have to look like before it could truly be called meritocratic? This commentator suggests meritocracy has helped many people in England move up to the middle class but ultimately, Prince William from Eton, the symbol of upper-class England, will carry the day. Does a society need to be mostly middle-class? Do most of the citizens have to feel that they have an opportunity to make their way up the class ladder (which seems to be the thought in America)? Does it mean that a majority or a large number pursue and achieve a college education? Does it mean the reduction of blue-collar jobs and a rise in white-collar and professional positions?

This seems difficult to sort out. America likes to think it is meritocratic even as many people have fewer opportunities to move up. Perhaps we could settle on suggesting that America, at least in ideology, is more meritocratic than England?

Measuring the economy by looking at midnight Walmart shoppers

There are all sorts of figures and statistics that are used to measure how the economy is doing. This NPR story introduces a new metric: looking at midnight sales at Walmart on the first day of the month.

Wal-Mart noticed that sales were spiking on the first of every month. In a recent conference call with investment analysts, Wal-Mart executive Bill Simon said these midnight shoppers provide a snapshot of the American economy today.

“And if you really think about it,” Simon said, “the only reason somebody gets out and buys baby formula is they need it and they’ve been waiting for it. Otherwise, we’re open 24 hours, come at 5 a.m., come at 7 a.m., come at 10 a.m. But if you’re there at midnight you’re there for a reason.”

And so Wal-Mart has changed its stocking pattern. It brings out larger packs of items in the beginning of the month, and smaller sizes toward the end. It makes sure shelves have plenty of diapers and formula.

This is a creative data source – but we would need more information before making broad conclusions about the American economy. Do other stores experience similar spikes? How big of a spike is this? What Walmart locations have seen the biggest jumps?

It strikes me that Walmart probably possesses a treasure trove of data that would be very interesting to look at.

Predicting working class job growth

Richard Florida (of The Rise of the Creative Class fame) writes at about where working class jobs will increase in the future.

The largest metro areas are expected to have the greatest amount of blue-collar job growth. Why these places are expected to have this kind of growth is left unexplained.

Overall, Florida describes the situation:

The good news is that the U.S. will continue to create relatively high-paying working class jobs. These jobs will continue to provide good livelihoods for the workers fortunate enough to have them. The bad news is that their rate of growth will be sluggish and not nearly enough to provide the amount of good, family-supporting jobs required to undergird a middle class of lower-skilled workers.

Takeaway: there will be some good blue collar jobs in the future – but they will be limited.