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Families & Community

The obsession with the "deserving poor" reaches new heights and hits TV

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Journalists try to stay away from editorializing, but I'm going to break the rule here and say I'm 100 percent comfortable calling CBS's new poverty porn offering, The Briefcase, disgusting. 

Everyone has their guilty pleasures. If you watch The Briefcase (and 6.8 million people did watch the premier episode Wednesday) I'm not saying that we can't be friends anymore.

I'm just asking that you don't ignore the anthropological gold we've got here. CBS knows it can feel confident The Briefcase will do well because it plays on so many ideas we have about poverty, the American Dream, and who deserves a lucky break. That the show exists says a lot about all of us.

What's the show about? 

Two "American families experiencing financial setbacks," (language from CBS via Vulture) are each given a briefcase with over $100,000. They're each told they can keep the money or give part or all of it away to the other family. What they don't know is that both families have a suitcase-each family thinks the fate of the other is totally on their shoulders. All the families have an incredible story (It's T.V. people!).  There are wounded veterans, disabled kids, family businesses, etc. We sit back and watch while each family tries to determine if their own situation, or somebody else's, is more deserving of a second chance via a suitcase full of cash.

What's the reaction

This week's premiere was the most watched Wednesday night program on network TV. 

Media response has been split into two camps. There are reporters like me wringing our collective hands and getting angry. The more interesting media response, if I'm honest, are the stories trying to show the families on The Briefcase don't deserve the program's payoff because the family may not have managed their money well in the past.

One of the families on the premiere is getting shade because they were on another reality show a few years ago that showcased families who throw lavish parties for their kids.  

CBS is trying hard to get people to buy into the idea that there are no losers on this show, as Aisha Tyler of CBS's daytime show The Talk inarticulately shills. She thinks, "The boost you would get as a family from doing something good for another family would be so galvanizing and intense that it would add value to your life that you couldn't calculate on more than just a money basis." Wild audience applause ensues.

What does this say about us?

There are two main tropes the network is hoping to play on.

The first is, of course, the trope of the "deserving poor." As our own Gabrielle Emmanuel points out in this cool image analysis, we have a deeply held cultural belief that for those poor people with upstanding morals, help will find them or there is some other, often spiritual benefit to poverty that alleviates their situation.  As Harvard sociologist Mario Small talks about in his work around the culture of poverty, that logic also allows us to collectively dismiss anybody who has not managed to get out of poverty as deeply faulted, and therefore we don't need to feel bad or concern ourselves with their upward mobility.

Judging from the promotional materials for The Briefcase, all the families on the show fit into the conception of the deserving poor. Without knowing if any of them actually live in poverty, we know they are struggling financially, but they are not mired in any of the less telegenic issues that contribute to poverty like mental illness, substance abuse, or a complete lack of educational or job opportunity. 

The second trope The Briefcase plays on is our idea that poverty is a zero-sum game. In our reporting we run into these ideas all the time. Affluent school districts are threatened by a perception that too many low-income kids are coming in. Neighborhoods often oppose affordable housing options. There is anxiety about the culture of poverty as contagious, but there is something more tribal going on. People compete with each other for resources, and it therefore seems natural to watch two struggling families agonize over $100,000. 

I'd be interested to see The Briefcase?'s audience demographics. The economic reality in America means it's likely a lot of families watching are in a similar financial position to those competing on the show. Maybe an offering like this could only succeed in an economic climate where so many families can identify with those on the show, and where so many know exactly what they would do with a briefcase of $100,000. 

Go for it. Watch the first show and every preview here. Tell us what you think.

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