“Solving” the Poverty and “Secret Millionare”

I’m sitting around enjoying my Sunday afternoon. I enjoyed some quality (ahem) reality show America’s Next Top Model: Cycle 2.0 (with boyz!!), but I was all caught up, so there was only one episode. And I had a sleeping roommate on me, so I was too limited in my movement* to read articles, so I began exploring Hulu in search of other great shows (previous contenders have included House Hunters, but also Holidate, whose contract with Hulu has sadly expired). I had heard of Shark Tank and was sort of curious about it, since I’m getting to be a bit more interested in start ups, start up culture and the mechanics behind investment in them. Perhaps this show is a good way to explore that, even though it’s still reality. It was interesting, and I discovered that I MUST FIND THESE SWEET BALLZ, but there was also only one episode. Hulu recommended to me a show I had not heard of, ABC’s Secret Millionaire. So I watched the first episode.

I’m so conflicted. The show’s premise is pretty basic: a multi-millionaire gets dropped (without his or her money) into a neighborhood with a high proportion of folks living in poverty and seeks out people who are doing good in the community, volunteers with them for a week and then gives them some money. In the episode I saw, the millionaire ended up distributing $142,500, which, let’s be real, is not that much of his money. This particular episode included a guy and his 19-year-old daughter, and you really do see them being impacted by the experience, which is great. I think it is really really important (critical! crucial!) for people who live in a wealth/privilege-bubble to see, with their own eyes, what poverty looks like in peoples’ actual lives. And spending a week (not just a few hours) in the community shows an effort to do that in a more than superficial way, which is saying A LOT for a reality show. This is obviously not the first (or even best known) example of this kind of attempt, with Extreme Makeover: Home Edition being one I think of.  I’m certain there are others. Part of me wants to be happy that there is at least a (half-assed!) attempt at bridging the divide between haves and have-nots, but there are a few things that I find ultimately extremely problematic about this.

1. The Happy Ending

Bill Maher has an interesting take, and I really do agree with him, structurally:

He also mentions wealth inequality and recommends just dropping a rich guy who’s responsible in part for some of the economic crisis into an impoverished area. As Carrie Sieh explains in her criticism of Secret Millionare, the end result if this show is that things stay the same from a structural perspective. Sure, some money gets exchanged (remember that $142,500?), but when you consider that, as Bill Maher says above, in America, the top 400 richest people have more than the bottom 150 MILLION. We’re more than a bit top heavy, and one (or 100) exchanges of 150k won’t really change that. One of the most astute discussions of the concept and discussion of “solving poverty” is by Matt Bruenig. He discusses how when we discuss “solving” poverty, we fail to see how we’ve actually created poverty with our policies, and that instead of solving it, we should stop producing. Radical. 

2. They’re Telling the Wrong Story

A usual, the people with the privilege are the ones whose story is being told. There’s been a bit of discussion about this regarding the Netflix show, Orange is the New Black, and in general the “need” to have white/privileged people as a door into a story about POC (people of color) and those who are living in poverty. I personally think Orange is the New Black does this well, and that as a rule, it isn’t always bad. I think one challenge that social justice faces is the opposition to it and the defensiveness that a lot of people who would otherwise be fighting for social justice (or at the very least, supportive of it) have because they don’t feel welcomed into the conversation, or feel that it is hostile to people who do have privilege, or that they will be called a racist or bad person (stereotype threat!!). Social justice should be inclusive. I believe that it may have to adjust to help people see, in a nonjudgemental way, where they are being hurtful. Not everyone will listen to that. People will still be defensive. But some people will, and it may even impact how they move around in the world. This isn’t about being politically correct, but rather about acknowledging that you are part of an oppressive power structure, and you have power to adjust that and give other people who are differently disadvantaged by that system the permission and space to flourish. There is always someone more disadvantaged differently than you are. I digress, and the point is that this show is very clearly telling this story entirely through the lens of the privileged, which is part of what I found interesting about Bill Maher’s comments–the show is NOT about giving people an opportunity to interact with millionaires, but rather assuming the audience will be better able to relate (or want to?) to the millionaires and showing their transformation toward understanding that money isn’t all that important (this is exactly what happens in the episode I watch). It’s much more insidious than what Bill Maher claims, because it sends the message that people screaming for money need to shut up, because it isn’t money, but family! that’s important. Which, of course, is only true if you have money.

3. Money = Power

The show also reinforces the concept that money is power. The millionaires get to decide who is worthy (more on that in a minute), but they also get to feel empowered by feeling like they can do something to help these poor victims. I can’t reference the exact podcast, but Emily Bazelon, a Slate Magazine Senior Editor, made a comment on one of the weekly Slate Political Gabfest podcasts that really struck me–she said that one of her frustrations about her sons understanding poverty and race and class is how their interactions with people of lower class and those living in poverty were generally in a volunteer situation (like a soup kitchen) where her sons were helping and the lower class folks were being helped, and that that doesn’t actually foster empathy, because the poor people are still seen as “other.” I think that’s incredibly insightful, and I’ve been actually chewing on it for a while, with no great solution for how to remedy it. But I think it’s quite a brilliant insight, and one that fully captures part of what is problematic in Secret Millionaires.

4. The Myth of the Meritocracy

Sieh eloquently points this out in her article, but it’s something we’re all living under. American culture is addicted to the myth that the people who are successful are those who are deserving, even as we talk about how much luck matters, and that myth seems to be proved wrong, over and over again. Does someone really need to be a veteran to deserve help? What about people who, through no fault of their actual own, have, as children, then young adults, and then with no escape, through their adulthood, experienced the same kind of trauma of war right here in America. That idea is explored in one of the most brilliant and well-done episodes of This American Life, Doppelgangers. What makes someone deserve something? Do children deserve to eat? Maybe we should spend money to make sure their parents aren’t using drugs before they can do so. When these are the questions we’re asking ourselves, something is wrong.

So, while I found Secret Millionaires to be a bit touching, personally, I recognize that it fits into the structure we’ve built that creates and perpetuates poverty. And I find that quite disturbing.


*this is an excuse…