Oprah blends confusion with compassion
By Michael M. Bates
You think Tom Cruise hopping up and down on Oprah's couch was as silly as it can get? You must have missed the talk show queen's recent program about people living on low wages.
Claiming that 30 million Americans are working full time but are still stuck in poverty, Miss Winfrey cited the statistic as a "shameful secret" proving that the promise of the American dream has been broken. But there's more:
"This is why New Orleans happened. This is why it happened. Because you had people who were working, service people, minimum wage jobs, working people who didn't have the resources to go anywhere. That's the point. That's the point."
She delivered this sagacious observation with the gravity of a papal ex cathedra declaration. I don't know for certain, but my guess is she speaks like this, very deliberately, enunciating each syllable slowly, repeating herself, so that even her average fan can understand how important her message is. Dabbing her tears and other theatrics also help.
Joining Oprah in her ruing of our supposed national embarrassment was filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, best known for the anti-McDonalds "Super Size Me."
Spurlock and his fiancé tried to live on minimum wage jobs for a month to see what it's like. On a film clip, the couple runs out of money while buying groceries. Spurlock makes a command decision: "We're going to put back one of those waters."
Call me what you wish, but I don't think it's reasonable for poor folks - even pretend ones - to buy bottled water. Nor is it sensible to spend more than two hours of gross earnings on movie soft drinks.
Another segment focused on a man with a wife and four children who supports them on a $9.22 an hour wage. That must be extraordinarily tough. So one wonders why his wife, rather than helping the family out when it obviously needs it, is a full-time student. No explanation was provided.
Oprah also highlighted a woman and her daughter who, on the mother's minimum wage job, managed to leave a homeless shelter for their own apartment. I don't know why they wouldn't have moved out of San Francisco, which surely is one of the most expensive areas in America. And do they really have to spend $50 a month for a cell phone?
What was missing in the show is the fact that most people earning the minimum wage are not single handedly supporting families. According to government statistics, more than 80 percent of them live with their working parents or other relatives, live alone or have an employed spouse.
So what Oprah has done to make her point is take atypical situations and present them as typical. She may be blurring reality, but she's absolutely convinced of the solution: government. She and her guests called for Congress to increase the minimum wage, mandate a living wage, and provide free universal healthcare, paid leave and a secure retirement for everyone, regardless of how they may have spent their lives.
Morgan Spurlock's fiancé was applauded when she said what kills her is that "politicians have no problem giving themselves a raise every time it comes up, but they won't give everybody else a raise." The applause suggested the audience was as economically challenged as she is. Politicians don't generate wealth; they redistribute it.
Then again, maybe the audience wasn't befuddled. On Oprah's show, almost everything said receives robotically dutiful approbation. The obsequious clapping for whatever the great lady and her guest minions say is reminiscent of a Joe Stalin appearance before the Politburo.
Listening to Oprah and her panelists, a viewer could easily visualize 30 million Americans living in grinding poverty. But being "poor" in the United States isn't always so terrible. The Heritage Foundation, using Census Bureau findings, has reported forty-six percent of all poor households own their own homes. Moreover, 62 percent have cable or satellite TV, 73 percent own microwave ovens, more than half have a stereo, and a third have an automatic dishwasher.
I'm not disregarding the seriousness of poverty, just trying to put it in perspective. Like many people, I've worked minimum wage jobs. And, as is true for the overwhelming majority of workers, they led to better paying jobs.
Miss Winfrey knows from personal experience that there aren't uncomplicated solutions to poverty. A decade ago, she generously pledged a great deal of money to a program intended to help 100 families living in public housing get off public aid. There were 1,600 people who applied. Two years and $1.3 million (more than half from Oprah) later, a grand total of three families succeeded in getting out of public housing.
Despite that experience, Oprah apparently thinks she's got the answers. Near the end of her program she lectured:
Miss Winfrey said that her goal with the show was to open her viewers' eyes and hopefully their hearts. Next time, Oprah, why don't you try for their minds? I think your intentions are good, but you're looking to the wrong place for solutions.
Mike Bates is the author of Right Angles and Other Obstinate Truths. This essay originally appeared in the April 20, 2006 Oak Lawn Reporter.
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