Do better, NPR.
A couple of days ago NPR published an article titled What Living On $100,000 A Year Looks Like, the piece was filled with stories of families all over the country struggling to make ends meet despite making $100,000 a year. The purpose of the article was clearly to illustrate the widespread issue of an elevated cost of living created by the same economic factors that are shrinking the middle class and further enriching the 1%. This is a good point, but a good point sloppily made is distracting and destructive to the substance of the argument.
Highlighting families who have made the choice to spend almost $300,000 on a home in a market where many similar homes with similar schools are available for far less does not constitute a hardship, it constitutes a choice. Highlighting a home where both parents can work but one makes the very valid choice to stay home with the children and now struggles to travel as much or enjoy the same extracurriculars they did with two incomes highlights a choice, not a struggle. The limited budget to travel is a function of this choice, not a flaw.
No one denies that money doesn’t stretch nearly as far as it once did. No one is saying these are easy choices to make. No one is even saying that our current economic state hasn’t drastically changed what $100,000 means to a family, but to highlight these issues and make them the prominent narrative they are only serving to give fuel to the fire of those who believe income inequality doesn’t exist. When the stories we tell to illustrate the need for tax reform that offers relief for the working class, the need for single-payer health care, that it is absolutely imperative to raise the minimum wage, the issues created by employers that abuse the welfare system, or even the need to research things like low cost alternative sustainable energies are of people who can’t afford the vacations they used to take on two incomes, it’s no wonder that they so easily deny there is an issue. We’re showing them people who have the privilege of choice, a privilege available to an ever-decreasing portion of the population.
These stories are minimizing and distracting from the millions of families choosing between medication and electricity. All of the families who have no choice but to have both parents work to barely keep the basic necessities covered, or those families with only one parent earning subsistence wages with nothing for savings, nothing for education, nothing for emergencies, let alone vacations or extracurriculars are being brushed aside because their stories are hard to tell.
Their stories are often filled with false starts and riddled with questionable decisions, making it easy to ignore that there wasn’t a truly good decision to make when they’re deciding between this week’s groceries or the gas to get to work until next payday. It’s then easy to dismiss their struggles as being driven by character flaws like laziness, stupidity, or a lack of desire for anything better. Those who believe no income inequality exists can look at these tragic tales of people doing everything they can to provide and always falling short and ignore them because they believe it’s happening to inherently flawed people, stories like those shared in the NPR piece only feed that narrative.
We have to shine light on the ugly realities. We have to show them again and again until they cannot deny these tragedies exist. We need to rub their noses in the difficult truths they cannot even imagine. We’re not going to sway anyone with stories of missed vacations.