The Simpsons are no longer middle class, how America has changed. : Planet Money When the beloved Simpsons family made its TV debut in 1989, it squarely represented middle-class America. Today ... not so much. That house, those two cars, those three kids all on one salary doesn't seem so believable anymore. Today we examine the changing reality of what middle-class means in America through the Simpsons. It's a wild, musical journey into the heart of the US economy. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

Homer Simpson vs. the economy

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF COIN SPINNING)

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

The average American - most Americans, if you ask them, will say that they are just that, the average American earning a middle-class wage or maybe a little more, a little less. We are a country that measures itself largely by its middle.

PADDY HIRSCH, BYLINE: But who exactly is the average American, this most mysterious and talked about person? How much does the average American earn? How does the average American family actually live?

S SMITH: I mean, we could talk facts and figures all day, but we have to say there's definitely one American - one family, really, that has kind of claimed that title for a while. They were, in fact, designed to be the definition of middle class.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SIMPSONS THEME")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) The Simpsons.

HIRSCH: Back in 1989, just over 30 years ago, the very first episode of "The Simpsons" aired on Fox. And since then, the Simpsons have become an iconic American family.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

JULIE KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) Kids, we're late for church.

YEARDLEY SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) Ready for inspection, Mom.

KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) Oh, very nice, Maggie - and Lisa, you look lovely.

DANI ALEXIS RYSKAMP: "The Simpsons" had a lot to do with the way I understood the world as a kid and as a teenager.

HIRSCH: Growing up with "The Simpsons," Dani Alexis Ryskamp saw a lot of their family and community in the show.

RYSKAMP: I have a embarrassingly encyclopedic knowledge of the first 10 or 11 seasons.

S SMITH: Are you serious? That's so awesome. Really?

RYSKAMP: Yeah. Oh, I was obsessed with "The Simpsons."

S SMITH: Dani is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and they started to think about "The Simpsons" and had this realization.

RYSKAMP: The idea that you could have one breadwinner in a family of five, who had a high school education, working a union job at a power plant and buying a nice house in the suburbs and supporting a spouse and these three other kids - the Simpsons' life, which had so closely reflected my life growing up and the lives of basically everyone I knew, was, at this point, not normal but aspirational.

S SMITH: Dani wrote about this in an article for The Atlantic a couple of years ago.

HIRSCH: The Simpsons haven't changed much over the decades. Homer has the same job, same house. Lisa is still in second grade. The world, though, has changed a lot around it. Homer was introduced as a kind of economic everyman back in 1989. Would someone imagine that same life now? Is Homer Simpson's 1989 life out of reach in 2022?

S SMITH: We got so fascinated by this idea that "The Simpsons" could reveal deep truths about the American dream and the economy...

HIRSCH: Yes, they did.

S SMITH: ...Deep truths. And we actually made an entire Indicator episode about this a year ago.

HIRSCH: Yeah. And truly beyond any American podcast dream of our own, the writers of "The Simpsons" actually heard that episode.

S SMITH: Yes, they did. And they responded with an episode of "The Simpsons" based on our economic questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

NANCY CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) Dad, is that your paycheck?

DAN CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Sure is.

S SMITH: Their 33rd season finale just aired.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) Oh, you get all that every week?

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Every two weeks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

S SMITH: Oh, we loved it. It was the best. It was so nerdy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson, laughter).

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Ah, the laugh of respect.

S SMITH: It features a rapping economist. And you know, Paddy, while we were watching this episode, we started talking about it. And we were like, you know, they just answered us. We can't leave them hanging.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) D'oh.

S SMITH: Hello and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

HIRSCH: And I'm Paddy Hirsch. The biggest changes in the economy happen little by little, and you only really notice them when you step back and look at how things have evolved over a lifetime.

S SMITH: And in that way, the Simpsons are kind of, like, this archaeological dig, right? I mean, they are a representation of the middle class from about a generation ago that has survived intact, just sitting there, waiting for an economics podcast to come along with our shovels and our little brushes and our deep and strange love of data and start excavating.

HIRSCH: A lot of economic changes are subtle day to day, but truly they are seismic. So today on the show, we dig into "The Simpsons" to understand how the American dream has changed.

S SMITH: And fear not, we will get joyfully meta. We fact-checked "The Simpsons" season finale and dropped some economic truth bombs on 2022 Springfield.

HIRSCH: There will be jokes. There will be songs, Hugh Jackman acting as a magical janitor, lots of economic data and the dashed dreams of a fourth grader.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) I can't wait to live the American dream.

Y SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) Well, actually...

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) What?

Y SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) Oh, nothing.

S SMITH: "The Simpsons" - an iconic American family and a kind of economic touchstone for middle-class America - at least, it was. The dopey, goodhearted Homer working his job at the local power plant.

HIRSCH: D'oh.

S SMITH: (Laughter).

HIRSCH: Sorry, I couldn't resist.

S SMITH: That's your Homer. All right, OK, gauntlet down. Here we go. Marge - rock of the family, practical and loving, stay-at-home mom. (Imitating Marge Simpson) Homer.

HIRSCH: Very good, Stacey.

S SMITH: (Laughing) Thank you - been honing it. Three kids, two cars, a house, a dog - money for the Simpsons is often very tight, but they always make it work.

HIRSCH: Al Jean is a long-time executive producer of "The Simpsons" and one of the original writers on the show. He says he took a lot of the inspiration from the show from his own life growing up.

AL JEAN: My dad - he's not Homer Simpson but shares some qualities with Homer - ran a hardware store. We weren't rich. We weren't poor. We were in the middle. And, you know, with what my dad made, he had five kids and we could afford it.

S SMITH: Homer has a really solid job. He works at a nuclear power plant. It's a great job with benefits. And Al says Homer's life lined up with the lives of a lot of people that he knew growing up.

JEAN: I was born in Detroit, and when I was born in '61, you know, people would go, oh, you can get a job on the assembly line that, you know, whatever, paid up to $30 an hour guaranteed. It's a great job. You know, Detroit's always going to be making cars.

S SMITH: Right. Well, that is how it started. So how's it going?

HIRSCH: Yeah. Well, we talked about that a year ago in an Indicator episode, and Simpsons writer Tim Long heard that show and wanted to take the idea further.

TIM LONG: You know, it's obviously crazy that Homer has managed to maintain this middle-class lifestyle. Like, how are they living so well? But just the issue - the hard economic facts of the show just struck me as kind of like an interesting topic. So I started kicking that around in my mind, and then I thought, well, what's the funniest way that we could respond? And then it felt like, what if it were a musical?

S SMITH: I hope kind of that Jerome Powell is taking some notes because I'm just imagining, like, a musical Fed meeting. Like, inflation numbers set to music might help us feel better about everything.

HIRSCH: OK, OK, now back to "The Simpsons." In this episode, which is called Poorhouse Rock, Homer's son Bart embraces the American Dream, that idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can do a little better than your parents did.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) I never thought about it, but Homer makes enough to pay for this awesome crib, two cars, with enough left over to fill the freezer with three kinds of French fries - waffle, curly and steak cut.

S SMITH: Three kinds of French fries.

HIRSCH: That is the American dream. And Bart decides that he, like Homer, will work at the nuclear power plant and replicate his father's middle-class life.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

HUGH JACKMAN: (As Janitor) So you're visiting your old man at work today?

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) I sure am. And this sweet job will be mine someday.

JACKMAN: (As Janitor) Hate to burst your bubble, kid, but the kind of job your dad has just doesn't exist anymore. Bart, come with me to a magical place far in the past - America in the 20th century.

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) Oh, sure. But you better not start singing.

JACKMAN: (As janitor, singing) 1945, we won the war. Our boys came back to the factory floor.

LONG: The primary voice in the song is none other than Hugh Jackman, and he plays a sort of magical singing janitor who takes Bart on a musical journey through the American economy from the end of the Second World War until now.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Oh, and so it came to pass. With hard work and grit and brass, bit by bit, we built our middle class - nice little middle class.

HIRSCH: Yeah, and that magical singing janitor, Hugh Jackman, takes us back in time to when Homer, who does not have a college education, gets a job as the safety inspector at a power plant.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Oh, boy, that middle class. Oh, boy, that middle class.

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson, singing) Well, I'm not smart. I'm not a go-getter. My drinking problem is not getting better. What job could I possibly do?

HARRY SHEARER: (As Monty Burns, singing) Nuclear safety inspector.

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Woo hoo.

S SMITH: (Laughter) OK. So the jury's out on whether Homer would have gotten that job at any point in history. But Homer's job is the first stop on our archaeological dig. Would Homer have that kind of job today? And back in 1989, about 16% of jobs in the U.S. were manufacturing jobs. And today, it is just over 8%. So Homer would be way less likely to work one of those jobs. But, of course, you know, it's still possible. There's still a lot of those jobs.

HIRSCH: Well, yeah, for some people, but I'm afraid definitely not for Homer. And that's because Homer never went to college, and that simply would not fly for that kind of job in 2022. Bart's sister, Lisa, breaks it down for us.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

Y SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson, singing) You want a job like dad? Too bad, so sad. You'll never have the life our flabby dad had.

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson, singing) Yo, all I need is a foot in the door, and I'll take dad's job when he dies at 44.

Y SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson, singing) That job you see now needs a Ph.D., while paying student loans leaves you in poverty.

S SMITH: A Ph.D. - that is not good news for Homer, I'm going to say. I feel like...

HIRSCH: Yeah, not unless Ph.D. stands for a packet of happy donuts.

S SMITH: I love that a lot. But, you know, I do feel like any job that requires a doctorate or even, like, a bachelor's is probably kind of a non-starter for our average American hero.

HIRSCH: Yeah, and that takes us on to our next stop on "The Simpsons" economic excavation - money and pay.

S SMITH: What about Homer's pay and his lifestyle? Was it realistic back then? Is it realistic now?

OK, so they do not talk about Homer's salary directly in the 33rd season finale. But it has come up in "Simpsons" days of yore. And to find it took some real excavation back into the archives of "The Simpsons." And for this, we got some help.

HIRSCH: Dani Alexis Ryskamp, our "Simpsons" superfan and freelance writer, was determined to figure out exactly how much Homer made. And they started sleuthing through episodes until they find their evidence.

RYSKAMP: I started with the 1996 episode "Much Apu About Nothing," where we get a shot of Homer's paycheck.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Woo-hoo. A perfect day - zero bears and one big, fat, hairy paycheck. Hey. How come my pay is so low?

RYSKAMP: And we can actually see his gross pay and the taxes he pays on it and all of that. And if you do the math on it, his annual income works out to about $25,000.

S SMITH: That is roughly - not quite - 50,000 of today's dollars, which is a solid salary. But is it enough for the Simpsons to afford their life - you know, a house, two cars, three kinds of fries?

HIRSCH: Yeah, rapping in 2022, Lisa Simpson, our resident downer, is skeptical that this is all still attainable for her brother. She tells Bart, lower your economic expectations.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

Y SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson, rapping) You're going to pinch every dollar and cent, and you'll still have to choose between health care and rent. No brand-new car...

JACKMAN: (As the Janitor) No.

Y SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson, rapping) ...No fancy house, no hot dinners cooked by your stay-at-home spouse.

JACKMAN: (As the Janitor) Yeah.

S SMITH: OK, so this is very harsh from Lisa, Paddy. This is very...

HIRSCH: Well, no change there, then.

S SMITH: ...Lots and lots of bad news. But let's look at the data and see if what she's saying is actually true, if her doomsday prophecies are correct. So back in 1989, the median home price in the U.S. was $125,000. That is adjusted for inflation. Today, the median home price is about $430,000. Now, if we compare this to Homer's salary, back in 1989, the house would cost him about six times what he earned. Today, it is nearly 10 times his salary.

HIRSCH: Yeah, and the likelihood of 2022 Homer owning that home with the big yard - probably lower today than it would have been in 1989.

S SMITH: OK, Paddy. So far, 2022 Homer does not have a job or a house. Maybe he can move in with Bart.

HIRSCH: Oh, my God. Yes, maybe. But would Bart be able to afford a house? I mean, how are his economic prospects looking?

S SMITH: All that plus a rapping economist after a word from our sponsor.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) The ad in the beer podcast is an ad for beer. That is so smart.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEREMY SWEET'S "MY FAVORITE GIRL")

HIRSCH: OK, so we've basically established that 1989 Homer was living pretty large compared to what 2022 Homer can expect.

S SMITH: And the 33rd season finale of "The Simpsons" goes a step further. It says, this is not just Homer. Well, they sing it, actually.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) And so it came to pass.

ROBERT B REICH: (As himself) Really rich men kicked our ass.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Fiddling while they burned...

JACKMAN: (As the Janitor, singing) Our middle class.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Our middle, middle class.

HIRSCH: Burn the middle class is kind of a strong statement, right? I mean, yes, there are fewer manufacturing jobs than there were 30 years ago, but there are lots of really good jobs today that didn't exist back then. I mean, the tech industry alone, for example, has created millions of jobs.

S SMITH: There are many, many new kinds of opportunities for wealth. And Bart, you know, in a lot of ways has more options than he did 30 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson, rapping) Because there's a lot of new ways a guy can make a dollar. I'll ride the money train, make it rain...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Holler.

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson, rapping) I'll buy and sell Bitcoin, build a new app, do pranks on YouTube - I'm great at that crap - film TikTok tricks on my sick motorbike.

REICH: (As himself) Your chances are slim.

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson, rapping) Go to hell, Robert Reich.

S SMITH: Robert Reich.

HIRSCH: Robert Reich.

S SMITH: Amazing.

HIRSCH: Yes, the former labor secretary from the Clinton administration came on the show to, as "Simpsons" writer Tim Long puts it, throw down some facts.

LONG: But I just wanted someone to just start spitting facts for about 30 seconds, and I thought, well, who else to get?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

JACKMAN: (As the Janitor, singing) Your dad and his buddies had it swell, but gradually, it all...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) ...Went to hell.

JACKMAN: (As the Janitor) Factories closed, unemployment would spike - here to explain it is Robert B. Reich.

REICH: (As himself) The decline of unions, rampant corporate greed, Wall Street malfeasance and the rise of short-sighted politics all contributed to increased economic inequality, widespread real unemployment, wage stagnation and a lower standard of living for millions of Americans.

S SMITH: You know, Paddy, you and I, we love economists. We always love our data. But, you know...

HIRSCH: We do.

S SMITH: ...We wanted to fact-check all this for ourselves. Is the middle class actually smaller than it was 30 years ago? Is Bart less likely to be in the middle class than his dad?

HIRSCH: Good question. So let's look at the data. The Pew Research Center looked into this, and they found that back around 1990, 56% of American families were in the middle class.

S SMITH: And today, it's half. Fifty percent of American families are technically middle class right now. So the middle class has gotten smaller in 30 years - about 6% smaller. And one of the families that is no longer making the cut - the Simpsons.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) D'oh!

S SMITH: That's right. Our hero, Homer J. Simpson, isn't technically middle class anymore.

HIRSCH: Yeah, we looked at Homer's income and the size of his family, and used this calculator that the Pew Research Center designed. And according to that, the Simpsons back in 1989 were solidly middle class.

S SMITH: But today, even when we adjust Homer's old paycheck for inflation, the 2022 Simpsons are a low-income family. But not everybody in Springfield is struggling.

HIRSCH: Example A - Montgomery Burns, the owner and CEO of the nuclear plant where Homer works.

S SMITH: Monty Burns. When "The Simpsons" debuted, CEOs made on average about 60 times the average worker's salary. Today, CEOs make around 350 times the average worker's salary.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

SHEARER: (As Monty Burns) Excellent.

S SMITH: So if we use Homer's paycheck to extrapolate out Mr. Burns's pay, Monty Burns would have been earning about $1.3 million a year back in 1989. And today, he'd be pulling in around $17.5 million a year.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

SHEARER: (As Monty Burns) What's the smallest amount of money I can think of? A thousand dollars.

(SOUNDBITE OF ATM DISPENSING MONEY)

S SMITH: Yes, the rich are getting a lot richer than the middle class. But, you know, that is not necessarily at the heart of the American dream question, I would argue, Paddy. I would say that that question really centers around this idea that every generation can live a little bit better than the one before, have a few more opportunities. So I put this to "Simpsons" executive producer Al Jean. He agrees with you, Paddy. He does not think this is the case anymore.

JEAN: Sometimes I say, you know, it's possible that our show has declined, but the world has declined further. You know, I remember growing up and, you know, you just thought, oh, we're in the luckiest country in the world and, you know, things will always get better. And I don't believe the majority of the public thinks - at least, they don't think the second thing anymore.

HIRSCH: When Homer was born in 1950, about 80% of kids could expect to earn more than their parents. For the Simpsons' kids, born in the 1980s, only about half of them will earn more than their parents. And as far as the Simpsons' kids go, my money's on Lisa.

S SMITH: So 2022 Homer will wrap up, probably does not have a house or a job, and even though Homer's earnings are no longer economically middle-of-the-road, Bart probably cannot expect to do any better.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson, singing) I get it, dude. Abandon hope. We can't escape our slippery slope. The future's a sandwich made of poo. Just tell me, what do you want me to do?

S SMITH: Oh, Paddy. How did we get here?

HIRSCH: It is so bleak. But never fear. I have some silver lining "Simpsons" cheer.

S SMITH: Oh.

HIRSCH: Did you hear my rhyme?

S SMITH: I need it. I need the silver lining. I appreciate it.

HIRSCH: Here it comes. So the unemployment rate is a lot lower now than it was 30 years ago. And a record number of people have started businesses in the last couple of years, so, you know, there's a big entrepreneurial spirit alive and well in the United States. So Homer can always start that beer podcast and make his millions.

S SMITH: He probably really could. And by the way, we asked Al Jean if, you know, "The Simpsons" might consider adjusting Homer Simpson's lifestyle for inflation, like maybe, you know, making the family economically realistic by 2022 standards - you know, just a thought for Season 34. The answer seemed to be - it's, like, a hard no. That was a hard no.

JEAN: We did one once where they lost their house, and people said, it's too sad. People are out losing their houses. It just made me just too - you know, if we had Flanders buy it and rent it back to them, but, you know, even that - they were like, it's just sad. So you have this, like, a platform that they never go below because then it turns from comedy to tragedy, and nobody wants that.

S SMITH: Did you hear that, Paddy? Nobody wants 2022 Homer.

HIRSCH: Yeah, nobody wants tragedy.

S SMITH: I mean, there's nothing wrong with a little bit of suspension of disbelief.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

HANK AZARIA: (As Frank Grimes) How can - how in the world can you afford to live in a house like this, Simpson?

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) I don't know. Don't ask me how the economy works.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW JAMES LODGE'S "TWISTS AND TURNS")

HIRSCH: This episode of PLANET MONEY was produced by Audrey Dilling and edited by Alex Goldmark. It was fact-checked by Taylor Washington.

S SMITH: Our engineers were Gilly Moon and Josh Newell, and the original Indicator episodes were edited by Kate Concannon, produced by Brittany Cronin, Jess Kung, James Willetts, Corey Bridges and Sam Sy (ph).

HIRSCH: And PLANET MONEY is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW JAMES LODGE'S "TWISTS AND TURNS")

HIRSCH: Did Robert Reich look over the script?

LONG: Yeah, he did. He did. And he didn't have a single change.

HIRSCH: So this means that we could say that this show was in some way inspired by The Indicator and fact-checked by Robert Reich.

LONG: Yeah, that's one way to put it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW JAMES LODGE'S "TWISTS AND TURNS")

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