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The Faulty Message of "It's a Wonderful Life"

Personal Perspective: In real life, the Mr. Potter-types are coming out ahead.

Key points

  • Poverty and near-poverty remain endemic in the U.S.
  • Entertainment can function as a way to alleviate stress—and avoid reality.
  • We can enjoy feel-good family fare like "It's a Wonderful Life" and still pay attention to the real need for change in America today.
Copyright Fumiste Studios, used with permission
Source: Copyright Fumiste Studios, used with permission

The Frank Capra film "It's a Wonderful Life" will run in millions of American households this holiday season—and like countless others, I will watch it again and be moved by the triumph of small-town-American kindness as the assembled townsfolk sing Christmas carols, and snow accumulates softly on the streets of Bedford Falls.

And this Christmas, as with every Christmas I can remember, I will again ask myself: How can I be moved by a film that, in my view, so grievously misrepresents the truth?

Almost everyone knows the film's plot, but I'll summarize it anyway. George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart), who runs a community savings bank that helps working people afford their own cute new cottage, fights a takeover bid by a cynical plutocrat named Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore), who already runs most of the other local businesses. Potter lusts to turn Bedford Falls into a company town (Pottersville) that exploits its inhabitants by housing them in cheap slums at high rents while raking in profits from the entertainment district that will anesthetize the misery of Potter's tenants: an outcome Bailey views through the lens of an intervening angel.

In the film, George Bailey saves his bank and the town. In the real world, I would argue, Potter is winning.

Consider this: More than one in six Americans now live not in small towns, where people are more likely to know and help out their neighbors, but in urban or suburban settings where communal life is on the decline. The contrast between the ideal of small-town cooperation and the cool anomie of a suburb is starkly portrayed in the Capra movie,

And this (as mentioned in an earlier post): Instead of participating in activities in which they interact with others face-to-face, Americans now spend just over seven hours a day on a screen. Some of that time is spent working, shopping, or indeed communicating with other people. Much of it, though, is spent entertaining the viewer.

Research on the role of entertainment in modern life has found a correlation between the amount of stress and the amount of entertainment sought to counterbalance that stress. For example, a study by Eden, Reinecke, Johnson, and Grady during the COVID-19 pandemic found greater use of media as both a coping and distractive mechanism. Another study demonstrates a nuanced correlation between entertainment (including social media) and procrastination—putting off thought or action on serious matters.

An Online Red-Light District?

Some commentators see no harm in looking for entertainment as a distraction or as a way to cope. Yet I believe the screen at which we spend almost half our waking life often works as a digital version of the red-light district in Pottersville: while we're watching "The Walking Dead," we might not be asking ourselves why we can't pay the rent, even as modern-day Mr. Potters cruise by in their limos.

Consider this well-known statistic: In the richest country that has ever existed in the history of the world, the wealthiest 1 percent of the population owns 32 percent of all the wealth, while the bottom 90 percent own 30 percent. You do the math. And in the richest country in the world, a little over 11 percent—almost 40 million people—live in what the government defines as poverty—$27,750 for a family of four, $13,590 for a singleton.

The federal definition of poverty (on which that 11 percent is based) is, by most standards, wildly optimistic. People who earn somewhat more than the poverty line often have real trouble making ends meet. Half of U.S. workers earned less than $35,000 a year in 2019, according to the census. And a 2021 survey showed that, on average, a very modest two-bedroom apartment costs $1,060 a month—a rent that, in order for a family to live with security, would require an income of at least $42,400.

Celine-Marie Pascale, a Los Angeles Times reporter, filed this example: "In southeast Ohio, I commonly met people who worked multiple jobs and who still found it difficult to pay their bills. Michael Chase was one of them. Between two jobs, he works 45 to 60 hours a week and brings home just under $16,000 a year. Neither job comes with health insurance, sick leave, or vacation time. He shares an apartment with three roommates—a situation he finds stressful—and still worries at times about making rent."

The High Cost of Emergencies

A 2019 survey found that 40 percent of Americans couldn't find $400 to handle emergency expenses such as a health problem; this in a country which, almost alone among developed nations, has no universal health insurance and where 43 percent of workers are inadequately covered by health insurance from private sources.

Meanwhile, the Potters of this world increase their power over our lives. Domination of the U.S. economy by oligopolies—a handful of huge firms—at the expense of small businesses (think Potter's Bank vs. Bailey's Savings and Loan) has become the rule rather than the exception. Crucial elections are increasingly swayed by Political Action Committees (Super-PACs) funded by billionaires, large corporations, and giant unions. In 2016, Super-PACs—most of them supporting pro-big-business candidates—poured more money into 53 key federal races than the actual candidates did.

Interestingly, "It's a Wonderful Life" was suspected by the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) of constituting "communist" propaganda—though it was subsequently cleared. The movie reflects its time in other ways as well. The only African-American character in Capra's film is a maid; women are mostly subservient housewives; the economic ideal it strives for is some kind of amorphous, semi-Christian charity. It is a feel-good family movie, a nostalgia fest, and a paean to an America many people want to exist. There's no reason we shouldn't enjoy it as such.

But after the credits roll, we should also take a look out our living room window at Pottersville.

We live there.

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