Americans So Broke They Can’t Take Their Kids to Movies This Holiday Season

What’s more American than families on holiday taking in a movie together, munching popcorn as the latest comic book hero saves the day?

Here’s what: Staying home poring over healthcare bills at the kitchen table.

Happy holidays, America! Warmly, the 1 Percent.

According to a new report from the Wall Street Journal, movie night is becoming out of reach for middle-class Americans who are struggling to keep up with the soaring costs of healthcare and other basic necessities.

If you’re an ordinary middle-class employee, your income hasn’t budged since the financial crisis. But you paid 40 percent more for health insurance in 2013 than in 2007, a problem Obamacare not only fails to solve, but actually makes worse for many middle-range folks who can’t get subsidies and must pay outrageous deductibles and a slew of sneaky new expenses the industry has piled on. Staying digitally connected is also thinning your wallet: the cost of cell phones has skyrocketed almost 50 percent, while Internet access costs 81.3 percent more. Rent, childcare and education are walloping Americans from sea to shining sea.

The richest Americans, meanwhile, have grabbed more of the nation's wealth than they have in a century, spending lavishly on private jets, ginormous yachts and penthouses complete with waterfalls and zen gardens. The explosion of wealth at the top has been accomplished at the expense of the middle class and the poor.

Which is why America is exploding from within. Despite the fearful images of beheadings and threats from foreign lands, the scariest things are happening within our borders. The country is being denatured, transformed from a place where you believe that ordinary people have a shot at living fulfilling, dignified lives to a land where the haves and have-nots live in completely different worlds — worlds that must increasingly clash.

Going to the movies used to bring Americans together; in the 20th century, cinema came along as a new form of entertainment for the clerks, sales reps and managers who emerged with the second industrial revolution. With money in their pockets and leisure time at their disposal, this new American middle class flocked to see the latest flicks: by 1920, weekly attendance equaled 50 percent of the nation's population. Promoters showed families attending together as a way to purge cinema of the dicey associations of vaudeville and urban nickelodeons.

Americans loved the movies, and they basked in the comfort and connectivity of a shared culture that was broadcast everywhere, bringing together people from town and country, north and south, industry and agriculture, young and old. This unifying trend was heightened after WWII, when the New Deal brought more women and African Americans into the economic fold.  

But in recent decades, that trend has ground to a halt, and increasingly we'll be seeing what happens when economic fragmentation brings cultural fragmentation in its wake. The shared experiences and expectations that made people feel American and connected to their fellow citizens from the mountains to the prairies are dissolving.

Instead of thinking about which bestselling novels to read over summer vacation, the teacher is taking an extra job to pay off the bills from last year’s health emergency. The girl looking forward to summer camp will listen to her parents fighting over unpaid cable bills rather than learning to paddle a canoe with kids from other regions. Holiday movie night will find American family members at home, isolated in their various digital distractions.

All around the country, the U.S. is setting poverty records as the formerly middle class slides down the economic ladder. It all boils down to growing income inequality, something the rich have guaranteed through their vigorous investments in the political system. And they tell us it’s our fault for living beyond our means.

Nowadays, as the Wall Street Journal report describes, living beyond your means amounts to things like going to a restaurant or buying clothes. The authors cite the woes of carpet store owner Michael Peters, whose family saw its health insurance bill leap 40 percent in six years. Peters' wife needed cataract surgery in August 2014 at a cost of $1,700 out of pocket, even though the same operation on her other eye cost just $189 in 2007. Such skyrocketing and totally unjustified costs have changed the contours of people’s lives. The Peters family has stopped going to “tablecloth" restaurants and dropped season tickets at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts. They can’t afford indoor club seats for University of Wisconsin football games anymore. In other words, they’ve had to quit doing the things that made them feel like participants in the American Dream, like people who can enjoy a few luxuries for all the hard work they’ve put in.

The 1 percent has worked very hard to orchestrate this outcome. But could it backfire on them?

One reason big business types loved the movies when cinema was taking off is that it kept people from doing other things with their evenings and weekends, like attending union meetings or community gatherings. If Americans can no longer afford to go to the movies or the football game, what will they do with their time? Will they start reading radical blogs and sharing their anger? Will they join a protest against police brutality or economic oppression? Will they organize with fellow citizens to fight for better conditions?

There’s something sad about a culture fragmenting and citizens growing apart from each other, no longer sharing common experiences of holidays, uniquely American sports, and popular arts and entertainment. French sociologist Émile Durkheim described a condition called "anomie" which happens when bonds break down in a society, and people can't figure out what they are supposed to hope for and work towards. They walk around feeling disoriented by the gulf between what they were taught to expect and value, and what they see around them.

But perhaps when the sedating soma of popular culture, with its emphasis on the ideals such as capitalism, commercialism and individualism, is less readily available to keep the masses distracted — since they are too broke from paying for basic medical treatment — they might just find commonality in their shared economic woes, and in the pain this has inflicted on their spirits. As our mythic identity as searchers for the American Dream fades, what new identity will emerge in its place? Will our beliefs and values diverge, or will we be able to unite under banners like “the 99 percent?”

Stay tuned: The community of the economically oppressed grows bigger every day.


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