Updated at 11:10 a.m. ET on February 8, 2021.
The most famous dysfunctional family of 1990s television enjoyed, by today’s standards, an almost dreamily secure existence that now seems out of reach for all too many Americans. I refer, of course, to the Simpsons. Homer, a high-school graduate whose union job at the nuclear-power plant required little technical skill, supported a family of five. A home, a car, food, regular doctor’s appointments, and enough left over for plenty of beer at the local bar were all attainable on a single working-class salary. Bart might have had to find $1,000 for the family to go to England, but he didn’t have to worry that his parents would lose their home.
This lifestyle was not fantastical in the slightest—nothing, for example, like the ridiculously large Manhattan apartments in Friends. On the contrary, the Simpsons used to be quite ordinary—they were a lot like my Michigan working-class family in the 1990s.
The 1996 episode “Much Apu About Nothing” shows Homer’s paycheck. He grosses $479.60 per week, making his annual income about $25,000. My parents’ paychecks in the mid-’90s were similar. So were their educational backgrounds. My father had a two-year degree from the local community college, which he paid for while working nights; my mother had no education beyond high school. Until my parents’ divorce, we were a family of three living primarily on my mother’s salary as a physician’s receptionist, a working-class job like Homer’s.
By 1990—the year my father turned 36 and my mother 34—they were divorced. And significantly, they were both homeowners—an enormous feat for two newly single people.
Neither place was particularly fancy. I’d estimate that the combined square footage of both roughly equaled that of the Simpsons’ home. Their houses were their only source of debt; my parents have never carried a credit-card balance. Within 10 years, they had both paid off their mortgage.
Neither of my parents had much wiggle room in the budget. I remember Christmases that, in hindsight, looked a lot like the one portrayed in the first episode of The Simpsons, which aired in December 1989: handmade decorations, burned-out light bulbs, and only a handful of gifts. My parents had no Christmas bonus or savings, so the best gifts usually came from people outside our immediate family.
Most of my friends and classmates lived the way we did—that is, the way the Simpsons did. Some families had more secure budgets, with room for annual family vacations to Disney World. Others lived closer to the edge, with fathers taking second jobs as mall Santas or plow-truck drivers to bridge financial gaps. But we all believed that the ends could meet, with just an average amount of hustle.
Over the years, Homer and his wife, Marge, also face their share of struggles. In the first episode, Homer becomes a mall Santa to bring in some extra cash after Homer learns that he won’t receive a Christmas bonus and the family spends all its Christmas savings to get Bart’s new tattoo removed. They also occasionally get a peek into a different kind of life. In Season 2, Homer buys the hair-restoration product “Dimoxinil.” His full head of hair gets him promoted to the executive level, but he is demoted after Bart accidentally spills the tonic on the floor and Homer loses all of his new hair. Marge finds a vintage Chanel suit at a discount store, and wearing it grants her entrée into the upper echelons of society.
The Simpsons started its 32nd season this past fall. Homer is still the family’s breadwinner. Although he’s had many jobs throughout the show’s run—he was even briefly a roadie for the Rolling Stones—he’s back at the power plant. Marge is still a stay-at-home parent, taking point on raising Bart, Lisa, and Maggie and maintaining the family’s suburban home. But their life no longer resembles reality for many American middle-class families.
Adjusted for inflation, Homer’s 1996 income of $25,000 would be roughly $42,000 today, about 60 percent of the 2019 median U.S. income. But salary aside, the world for someone like Homer Simpson is far less secure. Union membership, which protects wages and benefits for millions of workers in positions like Homer’s, dropped from 14.5 percent in 1996 to 10.3 percent today. With that decline came the loss of income security and many guaranteed benefits, including health insurance and pension plans. In 1993’s episode “Last Exit to Springfield,” Lisa needs braces at the same time that Homer’s dental plan evaporates. Unable to afford Lisa’s orthodontia without that insurance, Homer leads a strike. Mr. Burns, the boss, eventually capitulates to the union’s demand for dental coverage, resulting in shiny new braces for Lisa and one fewer financial headache for her parents. What would Homer have done today without the support of his union?
The purchasing power of Homer’s paycheck, moreover, has shrunk dramatically. The median house costs 2.4 times what it did in the mid-’90s. Health-care expenses for one person are three times what they were 25 years ago. The median tuition for a four-year college is 1.8 times what it was then. In today’s world, Marge would have to get a job too. But even then, they would struggle. Inflation and stagnant wages have led to a rise in two-income households, but to an erosion of economic stability for the people who occupy them.
Last year, my gross income was about $42,000—the amount Homer would be making today. It was the second-highest-earning year of my career. I wanted to buy a home, but no bank was willing to finance a mortgage, especially since I had less than $5,000 to make a down payment. However, my father offered me a zero-down, no-interest contract. Without him, I would not have been able to buy the house. (In one episode, Homer's dad helps him with a downpayment on his home.)*
I finally paid off my medical debt. But after taking into account all of my expenses, my adjusted gross income was only $19. And with the capitalized interest on my student loans adding thousands to the balance, my net worth is still negative.
I don’t have Bart, Lisa, and Maggie to feed or clothe or buy Christmas presents for. I’m not sure how I’d make it if I did.
Someone I follow on Twitter, Erika Chappell, recently encapsulated my feelings about The Simpsons in a tweet: “That a show which was originally about a dysfunctional mess of a family barely clinging to middle class life in the aftermath of the Reagan administration has now become aspirational is frankly the most on the nose manifestations [sic] of capitalist American decline I can think of.”
For many, a life of constant economic uncertainty—in which some of us are one emergency away from losing everything, no matter how much we work—is normal. Second jobs are no longer for extra cash; they are for survival. It wasn’t always this way. When The Simpsons first aired, few would have predicted that Americans would eventually find the family’s life out of reach. But for too many of us now, it is.
*This article was updated to include the fact that Homer's father, Abraham, helped his son with a downpayment for a home.