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Economy & Business

Is Homer Simpson still America's economic everyman?

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

For nearly 30 years, Homer Simpson has worked a union job at a nuclear power plant in Springfield, a job he got without a college degree. But on his salary alone, Homer has always been able to support a family of five. He's also been able to afford a house, health insurance and seemingly endless amounts of Duff beer. When "The Simpsons" first aired way back in 1989, the lifestyle Homer and his family had wasn't considered anything fancy. In fact, it was pretty normal for the average American middle-class family. But what about now? If the life of the Simpsons sounds unrealistic or even impossible to you for a middle class family in this day and age, you're not alone. Last year, NPR's The Indicator From Planet Money set out to answer the question, is Homer Simpson still America's economic everyman?

PADDY HIRSCH, BYLINE: He's not.

PFEIFFER: That's Paddy Hirsch, who reported the story for The Indicator along with Stacey Vanek Smith.

HIRSCH: We figured out that Homer would earn about $50,000 a year, but he probably would not be able to afford the lifestyle that he affords in "The Simpsons." He's got a wife, Marge. He's got three kids. He owns two cars. He's got a house that accommodates all of that family comfortably. You know, today, both parents have to work in order to afford to make the rent or to make the mortgage and to keep up those car payments and to make the savings that they're going to have to make to send their kids to college in the future.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: The writing team of "The Simpsons" heard The Indicator episode and decided to dig into this question for the show's third season finale, which airs tomorrow night.

HIRSCH: Essentially, what happens is Bart expresses his contempt for his father, for Homer. And Homer says, well, maybe I can persuade him to respect me by taking him to work. He does this. Bart is very impressed.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

NANCY CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) Whoa, a pop machine full of free pop, a TV showing that jerk Dr. Phil.

HIRSCH: And he becomes convinced that his dad has got a cool job.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) And this sweet job will be mine someday.

HIRSCH: Unfortunately, he then is confronted by a - let's call him a magical janitor in the shape of Hugh Jackman, who then tells him that that actually might not be possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

HUGH JACKMAN: (As character, singing) 1945, we won the war. Our boys came back to the factory floor. The good times rolled, and smiles were on our faces.

HIRSCH: Over time, those jobs slowly disappear as the economy sort of contracts.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

JACKMAN: (As character, singing) They chopped salaries to raise top prices.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, singing) Cut up the pie and kept all the slices.

HIRSCH: So, of course, all of this beats down on Bart. And, you know, Bart is a little crushed by this.

PFEIFFER: Bart is worried he won't be able to get a job that would provide a middle class life.

HIRSCH: So the last scene in this, when you get to the point where you think, well, there's no hope, suddenly the solution emerges. And the solution emerges in the shape of the fire department.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) Mom, Dad, I figured out what I'm going to do. I'm going to be a fireman.

JULIE KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) Well, it's true that fire isn't going anywhere.

PFEIFFER: Wait. Is Bart implying that becoming a firefighter or doing some other kind of government work is one of the few remaining paths to middle class life? Hirsch asked "The Simpsons" writers about that.

HIRSCH: The point was made because pay has stagnated really since the mid 1970s, because labor protections have gradually been stripped away as unions have declined. It means that if you did want that safety, you'd have to go to a government job to get them because that's where most of the union protections exist today.

SMITH: So did "The Simpsons" writers get it correct?

HIRSCH: We were quite pleased with the response. We think that the writers actually have a pretty accurate view on the economy. For us, it's a little bit skewed politically perhaps, as far as we're concerned, that the middle class has had it really tough over the last 50 years. And this episode, it points very directly at that decline.

PFEIFFER: That was journalist Paddy Hirsch. "The Simpsons" latest season finale episode airs tomorrow night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.