SPEAKING OF EDUCATION: Television Fiction, Income Reality
Popular culture has managed to seep into the curriculum at many universities. Using the lens of television, movies, billboards, and the other media methods that sell us dreams and nightmares and distort our realities, some professors are able to lead students through study and discussion about values, politics, economics, and social issues in our culture.
The syllabus for one of these "popular culture" classes moved me to consider the ways we view income through a popular lens. There is a great gulf between the popular portrayal of income, work, and occupational status and the reality. To be sure, prime-time television is hardly a barometer of the socio-economic status of American workers. Still, it is illustrative to review prime-time programs from a propaganda perspective.
In pursuit of drama, or even humor, what kind of characters are used to make a point? Are they contemporary or historical, physicians or nurses? Who are the people who occupy the fantasies and leisure time of millions of our fellow citizens? What does a writer's selection of these people, these fantasies say about the distance between popular images and our reality?
I am confronted by these questions as I look at the income data released in a recent Census report. The September 1997 release of Money Income in the United States: 1996 (P60-197, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.) reported a 1.2 percent increase in household income between 1995 and 1996, good news given the wage stagnation that so many workers have experienced in the past year.
Of course this good news might be contrasted with the 24 percent growth in the stock market in 1996; even after the late October "adjustment" in the Dow Jones Industrial Average in 1997, stock prices had risen 11 percent, while wage increases still falter.
Indeed, much was made of the fact that per capita income grew for almost all of the race/ethnic origin groups the Census classifies. White income grew by 1.8 percent, African American income by 5.2 percent, and Hispanic income 4.9 percent. Less was made of the fact that White per capita income, at $19,181, is almost double that of Blacks ($11,899) and Hispanics ($10,048).
Prime-time television seems oblivious to these income differences, or to matters of income, in general. While more prime-time programs are set in the workplace, these are workplaces that contrast sharply with the reality. Workers wander in and out of the workplace, mill around their desks and in and out of conversations, have time to conduct affairs during work hours, and seem to have scant concerns about money. The hardest work seems to be done by physicians, nurses, health support staff, attorneys, and police officers, a group that is hardly typical of the overall work force. …