On money as a character on television
This article originally appeared on the World’s Finest: Batman, Superman, and Beyond website.
Money. We need it, we want it, but when we get it we don’t always know what to do with it. Parents often don’t teach money skills. Schools often can’t teach it because parents tell schools that only parents should teach it. Too many children learn nothing about money. Then years pass and the parents wonder why their 30-year-old children won’t move out of the basement.
It is staggering that people can be financially illiterate in a culture that celebrates money. Specialty newspapers, broadcast stations, and websites provide us with daily or hourly updates about other people’s money. This information is entertaining but often useless. Strangers determine the interest rate you pay for your purchases—but who makes you overspend? Alan Greenspan has no voice in your personal decision to max out your credit cards. The fluctuation of the dollar versus the pound is irrelevant to your decision to finance a shiny new car instead of paying cash for a dependable used station wagon with no options.
What messages do the media send about money? Advertising tries to teach us to spend. Lottery shows teach us to waste money. (The lottery is “the tax on people who are bad at math.”) Televised game shows are marginally better, since they allow participants to trade a certain talent for money. One contestant solves puzzles. Another answers trivia (“in the form of a question, please”). Those contestants who trade their dignity for a chance at a prize are likely to go home with neither item. Reality shows are a warped exaggeration of game shows.
Reality programs teach money skills in brazen and cruel ways. Yet they also illuminate personal failings that a contestant would not have acknowledged under more polite circumstances. A reader once asked Rabbi Joseph Telushkin his opinion of the Who wants to marry a millionaire series. He replied that it reminded him of
“a famous story told of George Bernard Shaw, who once met a beautiful woman at a party and asked her if she would sleep with a man for a million pounds. ‘I would,’ the woman answered. ‘And would you sleep with a man for five pounds?’ The woman grew indignant. ‘What do you think I am?’ she asked. Shaw responded, ‘We’ve already established what you are. Now we’re haggling over the price.’”
So if you believe the media can educate the public about money, you could do worse than to look to its storytellers. Let’s start with the Star Trek spinoff Deep Space Nine. (If you haven’t seen the series, look for an excellent introductory tie-in titled Legends of the Ferengi. Try to get the audiobook narrated by Armin Shimerman.) The Ferengi worship money. Citizens live by 285 Rules of Acquisition which they consider holy writ. Ferengi women receive no education, employment, or even clothing. Only lodging and food are provided, just enough to keep them alive. Ferengi men make no apologies. Money spent upon a wife or mother or daughter is money that the man cannot hoard for himself. Indeed, the man must hoard so that he can take it with him. For when the Ferengi die, they expect to go either to the Blessed Exchequer to bid on their afterlives, or to the Vault of Eternal Destitution, the desolation of bankrupts and failures. In the episode “Little Green Men” a Ferengi family awakens in an exotic but ugly room. One whimpers, have they died and gone to The Bad Place? To this Shimerman’s character, his faith unshaken, retorts that they must be alive because “the bar was showing a profit.”
We shake our heads at the fictional Ferengi, and indeed the other characters in DS9 almost universally loathe them. But at least the Ferengi are honest enough to admit that they worship money. Ferengi aren’t the only species who don’t let a little thing like death disrupt their financial influence and dominance. (Human financial planners describe estate planning as the tool the dead use to impose their values upon the living.) Ferengi aren’t the only beings who use money to measure self-worth. And the Ferengi aren’t the only creatures to make beggars of their loved ones.
Situation comedies also examine our behavior with money. Two sitcoms made money a starring character: Good Times and Roseanne. While these series would never be mistaken for each other they have themes in common. The parents tell their children plainly that they want the children to go to college. The parents cannot pay for college. The children become frustrated and try to marry out. Then the new spouse loses his own financial prospects. The child and spouse move back home, bringing more mouths to feed. The wife earns minimum wage or less, yet she is employed more often than her husband precisely because her employer can pay her less than a man. (In one episode of Good Times James Evans is told to his face that the company intends to hire his wife to save money. As a Black employee and a woman, Florida Evans would fill two quotas. If the company hired James, it would have to hire a second person to fill the second quota.) And both series show characters falling prey to get-rich-quick schemes. Is it coincidence that the get-rich-quick storyarcs were the most reviled aspect of both series, criticized both by the audience and by some of the actors?
Television series which make money a starring character portray the sheer desperation behind lack. They also inquire whether love alone is enough to hold together a family without food.
An alternate reality appears in sitcoms like Fresh Prince of Bel Air. In this series a poor teenager is sent to live with wealthy relatives. While the culture clash is entertaining, the series never did answer one question: If Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv are so wealthy, why did they take in Will but leave his mother in the ghetto in Philly? By all accounts Will’s mother is a wonderful woman who just happens to live in a dangerous neighborhood. (Did they answer the question and we missed that episode?) No such confusion is to be found on The Bernie Mac Show. Bernie Mac’s nieces and nephew have been removed from their drug-addicted mother. Much culture clash ensues. For Bernie Mac, the challenge is not just to teach the children about money, but to convince them that money is only a small part of a well-disciplined life.
Still another series with financial overtones is The Golden Girls. This 1980s gem is making a surprise comeback among college students. (Perhaps this is because so many teenagers grew up without ever knowing their grandparents … though we would prefer to think they watch because the series is funny. Fornicating, yes, but funny.) The Southern belle Blanche takes in tenants to help her pay the mortgage. The first tenant is Dorothy, a cynical substitute teacher whose ex-husband took her money and ran off with a trophy wife. Another tenant is Rose, a widowed housewife whose natural sweetness and sheltered background have left her unprepared to be poor in old age. The third tenant is Dorothy’s widowed mother Sophia, who marches into the pilot episode with the brusque line, “Go pay the cab. Nobody died. The home burned down.”
These characters pool their financial resources to survive. Yet money also exposes their weaknesses. Blanche fears old age. (She was a great beauty in her youth.) She looks to men for validation. As a result Blanche attracts numerous con artists, including a bigamist, an abuser, and a pen pal in prison. Blanche’s housemates are also good-looking, but the con men gravitate to Blanche because an anxious person with property is more attractive than a penniless lady or gentleman with a great personality. (Some of you single or widowed readers may have had a similar experience.)
Originally Rose works to supplement a small pension. When her late husband’s company declares bankruptcy it cancels that pension. She applies for higher-paying jobs but is turned away because of her age. A few seasons into the series, Rose’s daughter asks Rose for a financial accounting. The daughter is horrified, Rose humiliated. The adult children had been told that their father Charlie was a great success. How then could Rose have been reduced to renting a spare bedroom in a stranger’s house? The daughter accuses Rose of wasting Charlie’s life savings. Now the children will inherit nothing from their father. An angry Sophia rebukes Rose’s daughter. Charlie had left Rose almost nothing. When Rose called her dear late husband a success, she meant as a human being. He was a devoted husband and a loving father. These things meant everything to Rose—but when the children hear Charlie described as successful, their attitude is that success equals money. Therefore Rose is called a fool or a thief is she cannot document the money’s existence. Sophia (who has been poor) appreciates that human relationships create their own measure of wealth. Rose’s situation demonstrates how even happy families sometimes have very different values about money.
Dorothy and her family provide the most stark illustrations of money. Everyone wants Dorothy’s money. Her ex-husband Stan tries to rekindle their relationship simply so that she will pay his bills. When Stan finally makes serious money, he becomes more attractive in her eyes. But in the end, Stan is Stan. He springs a prenup on her on the day of their wedding—a document which ensures that the aging Dorothy will receive absolutely nothing if he abandons her yet again. Dorothy is forced to admit that Stan’s money is the only thing that could have made her desire such a scoundrel.
Next Dorothy must fend off her freeloading adult son. Michael, aged 23 and white, marries Lorraine, aged 44 and Black, to take responsibility for making her pregnant. It turns out to be the only responsible thing he does. The couple overcomes the objections of both families, but their marriage cannot survive Michael’s laziness. He will not get a job; very well, Lorraine throws him out. She is already carrying one baby, she says. Michael tries to move in with his mother, but Dorothy too tells him to get a job. Then his grandmother Sophia gives Michael money and Stan takes him in. Dorothy must convince her relatives to stop coddling Michael and throw him out. In theory Michael is the best educated, healthiest, and most employable person in his family. He just doesn’t work. In contrast his 85-year-old grandmother takes a job as activities director at a nursing home, and works herself into the ground in the stunning “The Days and Nights of Sophia Petrillo” (a.k.a. the nectarine episode), while Michael roams southern Florida moaning that “There are just no jobs out there that are right for me.” The parallels to Stan are unmistakable. Dorothy’s dilemma echoes the dilemma of real-world parents who don’t want to carry their adult children. She is not cruel, but she is resolute, and she is right.
Finally, Dorothy has to accept the changing reality of her relationship with her mother. Dorothy never wanted to put Sophia in a nursing home. A previous stroke had left Sophia too ill to take care of herself. Dorothy placed her in Shady Pines and liquidated Sophia’s estate to pay for her care. When the money was gone, Medicaid/Medicare took over. Sophia eventually recovered. Dorothy lives under a black cloud of guilt because she doubted her mother would ever recover, and she didn’t fetch Sophia from Shady Pines when she did recover. When the nursing home burns down, the now-healthy Sophia has no place to live. She moves in with Dorothy. Sophia loves her daughter, but she hated the nursing home and she salts that rain cloud every chance she gets.
In a follow-up episode Dorothy catches Sophia hiding a modest investment. Setting aside any quibbles about whether Medicaid/Medicare has a claim to that money, Dorothy is outraged on a personal level. “It’s all right, Ma, I don’t need a vacation. It’s all right, Ma, my old car will last another year. I scrimp and save and do without to take care of you, and all this time you were holding out on me!” Dorothy insists that from now on she will not purchase so much as a toothbrush for her mother. But tempers cool, and Dorothy reconsiders.
What Dorothy really wants to know is, Why? Why would Sophia hide money? Sophia has two reasons. One is image. Being poor hurt her. Having her home sold out from under her humiliated her. She admits she is very sensitive to other people’s opinions. “How many times have you heard, he provided well or she didn’t leave a dime. I don’t want anyone saying that about me. And after I die I want you kids to be able to buy something nice and say, I have this because of Ma. That’s how I want you to remember me.” Dorothy thanks her, then admits that she now enjoys taking care of her mother. “Enough to buy a pool?” Dorothy replies, “Don’t push it, Ma.”
Sophia has another reason. She could outlive her children. (They think Dorothy might die in one episode, and Sophia’s son Phil does die.) Sophia never wants to end up in Shady Pines again. Later Sophia witnesses a financial disaster that confirms her worst fears (and perhaps ours as well). “The girls” spend the night in a homeless shelter looking for a valuable jacket they accidentally donated. As they search, Sophia meets a friend her own age. This woman is so poor that even Shady Pines won’t accept her. The government’s poverty programs have not protected her. She is just another widow in her eighties who has fallen through the cracks. No wonder Sophia is such a pack rat. We all say, It will never happen to me. The truth is, you don’t know that.
According to The Golden Girls’s internal chronology, Sophia would have been born in 1900. It’s just as well that she’s a fictional character. She might not have liked the 21st Century. Medicaid has been cheated too often by prospective patients who hide money in their children’s names so that the government will pay for their nursing home care. Sometimes it is the children who think of it. They promise to take care of Ma if Ma gives them their inheritance a little early. Then they “take care” of Ma by impoverishing her enough to qualify for Medicaid instead of, say, using her money to get her the best care.
To combat this fraud, Medicaid enforces a three-year “Lookback” rule. “Lookback” means that if a patient moved money out of her name within the past three years, Medicaid assumes the transfer was made to hide the asset. The burden of proof is upon the patient to demonstrate honest intentions. If Medicaid does not believe her, she is penalized “x” number of months for each offense. “Penalty” means that they don’t pay her. They don’t house her. They don’t feed her.
As states struggle to balance their budgets, several have quietly adopted a Lookback period of six years instead of three. The AARP is still howling. They protest that sudden health catastrophes do occur, and that few people can reasonably prophesy what their health might be four years from now, let alone seven. Additionally, elderly relatives who transfer their assets to their relatives do not necessarily see a penny of it again. Relatives divorce, remarry, or get sued. Ma’s money walks away in the legal settlement. Finally, many people ask Ma to trust them with her money when they have shown no restraint with their own money. Few of these “helpers” can endure a financial fast of three years. In fact statistics show that more than half of all people who come into a large sum of money spend it all within a year.
States argue that a six-year Lookback will force more people to buy nursing home insurance. Thus fewer people will need Medicaid; Medicaid can pursue its original mission of helping the truly destitute. Also, we know we will grow old someday and we have decades to plan such eventualities. Surely in our modern era people are better educated about their finances. An obvious problem with the states’ argument is that the people who are already too old or too sick to buy nursing home insurance will fall through the cracks. And then there’s that “sudden catastrophe” scenario. Most people don’t know this, but many nursing homes will accept residents as young as teenagers, so long as they follow the same rules as Grandma and Grandpa (and as long as the facility gets paid). But how many people buy nursing home insurance when they’re still in college? Finally, this type of insurance is not standardized yet, so it’s very inconsistent, confusing, and discouraging.
So if you have a Sophia in the house, don’t even try to touch her money. If you touch it, use it to get her the best care. If you wouldn’t want to live in the El Cheapo wing at The Home, then maybe Ma doesn’t deserve to be treated that way either. Besides, Ma’s grandchildren will learn from your example. Surely what was good enough for Grandma will be good enough for you. In the end, I did right by her is a much better feeling than, Ewww, sick people.
Your host always did have trouble closing this article, so we’re just going to stop now. We will just note that not everything on television is garbage after all.