Simpsons' Middle Class Life Is Now Economically Unattainable : The Indicator from Planet Money The Simpsons were the quintessential American family when the show first aired back in 1989. But while the Simpsons have stayed largely the same, American middle class life has changed a lot.

Are The Simpsons Still Middle Class?

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

PADDY HIRSCH, HOST:

Back in 1989, just over 30 years ago, the very first episode of "The Simpsons" aired on Fox.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Yes, it did.

HIRSCH: A happy day - and since then, the Simpsons have become this iconic American family.

VANEK SMITH: Yes, the dopey, good-hearted Homer working his job at...

HIRSCH: (Imitating Homer Simpson) Doh (ph).

VANEK SMITH: ...The local power plant - (laughter) very good, Paddy.

HIRSCH: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: Marge, the rock of the family, practical and loving, stay-at-home mom - (imitating Marge Simpson) Homer. That's my Marge impression.

HIRSCH: (Laughter) That's a good Marge impression.

VANEK SMITH: Thank you (laughter). I mean, you know, everybody's got an impression from "The Simpsons," right? And the Simpsons were this, like, iconic family, like you said - three kids, two cars, a house, a dog; money usually kind of tight, but they make it work.

HIRSCH: They make it work.

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

HIRSCH: As a kid growing up with "The Simpsons," Dani Alexis Ryskamp saw a lot of her family and her community in the show.

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

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

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

VANEK SMITH: Dani is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich. And earlier this year, she started to think about her beloved Simpsons. And she had this kind of uncomfortable realization that Homer's life did not feel so normal anymore. It seemed kind of unattainable. She wrote about this in an article for The Atlantic.

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.

HIRSCH: Yeah, and here's the thing, right? The Simpsons haven't really changed that much over the decades. Homer has the same job, same house. Lisa is still in second grade. The world, though, has really changed around the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANNY ELFMAN SONG, "THE SIMPSONS THEME")

HIRSCH: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Paddy Hirsch.

VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Today on the show...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SIMPSONS THEME")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) The Simpsons.

VANEK SMITH: We look at economic data from 30 years ago and today, and we see how American life has changed and whether Homer Simpson is still America's economic everyman.

HIRSCH: Or if he's now kind of fancy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

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

HIRSCH: Today's indicator is...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer) Homer J. Simpson.

HIRSCH: ...Homer J. Simpson.

AL JEAN: Hello. My name is Al Jean. I'm an executive producer of "The Simpsons," and I've worked here for 30 years.

HIRSCH: Al says economically, the Simpsons were always meant to be very middle-of-the-road. In fact, he took a lot of inspiration for the show from his own life growing up.

JEAN: My dad is - he's not Homer Simpson but shares some qualities with Homer. He 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 then he can afford it.

VANEK SMITH: Homer has a good job, a manufacturing job - works at a nuclear power plant, has 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 and, you know, whatever. It paid up to $30 an hour guaranteed. It's a great job. You know, Detroit's always going to be making cars.

HIRSCH: Not as many cars being made in Detroit these days - manufacturing jobs in general are a lot less plentiful than they were back in 1990. Back then, about 16% of jobs in the United States were in manufacturing. Today it's just over 8%. So if he were working today, Homer would be way less likely to work one of those manufacturing jobs.

VANEK SMITH: Now to Homer's wife, Marge Simpson...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

JULIE KAVNER: (As Marge) Videos to return, grocery list, flea dip for the cat, Homer's dry cleaning.

VANEK SMITH: She works as a stay-at-home mom on the show. And a lot of people have pointed out she would probably be a part of the workforce in a modern-day "Simpsons." But statistically, that is not necessarily the case. Back in 1990, about 74% of women between the ages of 25 and 54 were in the workforce.

HIRSCH: Yeah, and that number has been climbing since then. And just before COVID hit, the share of women in the workforce was nearly 77%. But since COVID, of course, a lot of women have dropped out of the workforce. Right now about 75% of women in that age group are now working.

VANEK SMITH: So Marge would be a tiny bit more likely to have a job than she would have been 30 years ago but not much.

HIRSCH: But, of course, just having a job doesn't get you a house and a couple of cars - not anymore. How much you get paid is key. Dani Alexis Ryskamp, our "Simpsons" superfan and freelance writer, was determined to figure out exactly how much Homer made, so she started sleuthing through episodes. And she actually found some 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) Woohoo, 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.

VANEK SMITH: Back in 1996, the median household income was about $35,000. So if Homer's salary stayed in the same place relative to the median household income, Homer would be earning around $50,000 today, which is definitely a solid salary.

HIRSCH: Yes, but affording a house, two cars and supporting a family of five - that is a tall order on fifty grand a year these days, especially since other costs have gone up so much.

RYSKAMP: Tuition has more than doubled. Health care costs have more than doubled. I believe housing costs have more than doubled.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. Even after adjusting for inflation, college tuition has more than doubled since "The Simpsons" started. And student debt has grown even faster to an average of roughly $30,000 per student.

HIRSCH: And paying that debt off is also getting harder. Lisa and Bart's earnings prospects are a little bit bleaker now than they were 30 years ago.

VANEK SMITH: "Simpsons" writer Al Jean points out that millennial and Gen Z's earning potential is far lower than it would have been back in 1990.

JEAN: If you, you know, grew up in the '70s and '80s, your success, overall life is much more than people who came of age during the financial crisis or, I'm sure, people graduating from college now. And it doesn't even out. You know, you start lower. You stay lower.

VANEK SMITH: Millennials control less than 5% of the country's wealth, even though they make up most of the workforce. The baby boomers, on the other hand, back when they were the millennials' age, controlled more than 20% of the wealth in the U.S.

HIRSCH: And Al says the writers did experiment with knocking the Simpsons down an economic peg or two, you know, to make them a bit more in line with what was happening. But that didn't play so well. People did not want to see a humbler Simpsons family.

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

VANEK SMITH: In short, Homer Simpson as indicator shows us that the lifestyle of an economic everyperson in the U.S. has slipped.

HIRSCH: Al Jean says if he went back to his 30-years-ago self and told him that Homer was going to be kind of killing it by 2021 standards, it would kind of blow his mind.

JEAN: Yeah, something where Homer would have been considered a success - sometimes, I say, you know, it's possible that our show has declined, but the world has declined further.

(LAUGHTER)

JEAN: You know, I remember growing up, and 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.

VANEK SMITH: One person who might, though - Mr. Burns, the diabolical owner...

HIRSCH: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: ...Of the nuclear power plant. When "The Simpsons" started, CEOs made on average about 58 times the average worker salary. Right now CEOs make about 278 times the average worker salary.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

HARRY SHEARER: (As Monty Burns) Excellent.

HIRSCH: If Homer is the average worker, back in 1990, he would have been earning about $23,000. Monty Burns would have been bringing home about $1.3 million. And today if Homer is now pulling down about 50 grand, that means Mr. Burns would be earning almost $14 million.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

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

VANEK SMITH: It's good to be the Burns.

HIRSCH: It's good to be the Burns.

VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Brittany Cronin and fact-checked by Sam Cai. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

HIRSCH: Doh.

VANEK SMITH: Doh.

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