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Can the middle class live like the Simpson family? NPR asked; 'The Simpsons' answered

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This Sunday is "The Simpsons" Season 33 finale. And guess what? It was inspired by none other than our colleagues over at The Indicator From Planet Money. In an episode last year, Paddy Hirsch and Stacey Vanek Smith followed the lead of an Atlantic article to question whether this iconic family's middle-class-lifestyle is still attainable today.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: And in late 2020, The Atlantic published its great piece on "The Simpsons," and in March of last year, we aired our episode.

PADDY HIRSCH, BYLINE: Tim Long has been writing for "The Simpsons" for 24 years.

TIM LONG: 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?

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

LONG: And then it takes this crazy turn where Bart is informed via a musical number that that may not be possible anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

HUGH JACKMAN: (As character, singing) Your dad and his buddies had it swell, but gradually it all went to hell. Factories closed, unemployment was...

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")

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

HIRSCH: Homer gets his nuclear plant job during that postwar boom. Bart's prospects today, however, don't seem so good. For one thing, if he wants his dad's job, he's going to need to go to college, a fact his little sister, Lisa, takes great delight in telling him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

NANCY 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.

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

SMITH: Oh, Lisa Simpson - such a downer.

HIRSCH: Such a downer.

SMITH: Truly, though, she has a point. In fact, when we crunched the numbers on the Simpsons' household last year, we worked out that Homer would earn about the equivalent of $50,000 a year in today's dollars.

HIRSCH: Tough to send a kid to college on that kind of money, let alone get them an advanced degree. It's a good thing kids these days have options.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

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

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Holler.

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson, singing) 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.

ROBERT REICH: (As self) Your chances are slim.

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

SMITH: Robert Reich.

HIRSCH: Robert Reich.

SMITH: (Laughter) Economists - they're everywhere.

HIRSCH: So the former labor secretary from the Clinton administration came on the show to, as Tim puts it, throw down some facts.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

REICH: (As self) 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...

SMITH: You know who comes out of this episode looking pretty good, though, Paddy, are firefighters. Because in the last act of the show after Bart's fragile hopes for his future have been torched by Lisa and Hugh Jackman and Robert Reich, Bart gets himself into this terrible situation. And he is rescued, saved by firefighters.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Hang on tight. You'll be OK.

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) Thanks. By the way, how good's your pay?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Pay's good, and pension's great when we retire.

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) Nice.

LONG: The point that we're trying to make is that the middle class is sort of a vanishing species. And so, you know, we were slightly tongue-in-cheek when we said that fireman is the job that he should get, but he could do worse.

HIRSCH: Paddy Hirsch.

SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Paddy Hirsch
Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.