Would you go on ‘The Briefcase’?

Published 10:17 pm Wednesday, June 10, 2015

“The Hunger Games” was supposed to be fiction, but maybe it was prophetic. Now comes “The Briefcase,” CBS’s new reality show that pits desperate middle-class families against each other for financial survival. This seems more appropriate for dystopian science fiction than contemporary prime time, and the instinct is to kill the messenger: How dare CBS air this garbage?!

My problem with this and other so-called “poverty porn” shows isn’t that television networks are exploiting economic desperation for entertainment. My problem is that it no longer seems strange that middle-class families are a couple of bad breaks from poverty. Being broke is no longer just for the poor. Unless you’re one of the lucky few on the good side of the wealth divide, you could be in the middle class and just barely getting by, hoping to make it month to month.

“The Briefcase” is like “Sophie’s Choice” for the financially strapped. Every week, two families experiencing tough times are each handed a briefcase full of $101,000—with one horrible condition. They have to decide how much to keep and how much to share with the other family.

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Each family learns about the other’s hardships, so we witness a wrenching decision: However much each family keeps for its own survival is therefore denied to a family all-too-similar to theirs. All the while, the audience—Americans just like them—sits in voyeuristic judgment.

Poverty porn is not limited to our country or our age. Over in Great Britain, where the accents can fool you into thinking that they are made of better stuff, the BBC has a new reality show called “Britain’s Hardest Grifter.” Over five weeks, 25 unemployed and low-wage workers will compete by doing various jobs. The “least effective workers” will be eliminated after each episode, and the winners get £15,000, which is around $23,000.

The drama of watching poor people slug it out for cash prizes might be new to television but it’s been around for years. During the Great Depression, people also enjoyed watching their fellow struggling citizens entertain them by competing in dance marathons, six-day bicycle races, and flagpole sitting contests. The contestants won by enduring misery, but then didn’t everyone back then?

This was also about the time that escapist stories enjoyed a heyday, notably “Little Orphan Annie,” a comic strip that spawned a radio show and two film adaptations during the 1930s. And really, what is “The Briefcase” but a combination of the humiliation of publicly enduring pain for the promise of being rescued from financial ruin?

If modern-day poverty porn is just the reinvention of a dark period in American history, what’s different here is that the middle-class no longer represents safe harbor from the storm. It used to be that the American Dream was to buy a home, put your kids through college, and retire comfortably. Nowadays, good luck with that.

It’s more than a feeling of insecurity. The American middle class has not gotten a raise since the late 1990s, and the average family’s net worth is lower (adjusted for inflation) than it was in 1989. We’re closer to the edge than our parents were at this age, and it’s stressful. If this rings true to you, you’re not alone. A report by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that the middle class is better defined by stress and anxiety than stability and a solid income.

This rings true to me. I barely kept my business open during the Great Recession, but I ended up having to sell the house because the mortgage payments were too much. Things are better now, and debts are getting paid off, but I haven’t taken a deep breath since 2009. Maybe you know the feeling.

As easy as it is to sit in judgment of “The Briefcase,” it’s harder for me to sit at a remove and watch it happen to other people, because the problems the contestants face aren’t so different from mine that they can’t be solved by a pile of money. The conceit is disgusting and exploitative, but I can’t help wondering how many people like me would go on the show.

Would you?

Jason Stanford is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, a Democratic consultant and a Truman National Security Project partner.