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Most movies and television shows produced or set in the United States will assume that everyone is middle class. Even the "poor people" will be, on the whole, living in the type of "poverty" where it is a matter of being embarrassed about not having new clothing or a car for every family member, and not about not having basic necessities.

As an example, I will talk about the first episode of the tv show "Glee". Obviously there are many other examples out there, but when I watched this one, I felt it encapsulated how decision making about financial choices is portrayed in most popular media. The protagonist of the show is a Spanish teacher at a medium-sized high school in suburban Ohio. His wife is "materialistic" and has run up credit card debt on decorating, and reveals she has a baby on the way. Our protagonist has a noble goal of helping the outcast children of his high school find themselves through glee club, but his wife thinks he needs to get a better job. He starts filling out employment forms to be an accountant...a higher paying job that will let him give his wife the luxuries she expects, but will mean he has to give up his dream of helping people.

There are two problems with this, from a reality point of view. First, in his financial worst case scenario, if he stays at the high school pursuing his dream, he has...a middle class salary, with benefits and vacations. I know that having a kid is really expensive, and that Ohio might not have the highest salaries, but he will have good health insurance for him and his wife, and they will still have a comfortable home. So what the show describes as his "poor" option is a safe, middle-class life that probably one-third of people in the United States would be envious of. The second problem is that its taken as a given that he can get a higher paying job, and that somehow a high school Spanish teacher is qualified and employable as an accountant or financial professional, making twice as much money, and the only thing stopping him from getting that job the same week is a commitment to high school theatrics.

In most Hollywood depictions of "non-conforming" and "being true to self", the person making the decision has to sacrifice their ego, their social standing, but not their basic economic well-being. The Wall Street trader who "leaves the rat-race" to move to the distant shores of Maine to make hand-crafted furniture will still have a roof over their heads, and pantries full of food. (And ask yourself: did I make up that plot, or does it actually exist?). It is always assumed in these situations that moving downward socioeconomically is a choice, and that being upper-middle class is always an option, and that being lower-middle class is the absolute floor. I am sure that there are some exceptions to this, particularly in very realistic dramas, but on the whole, in mainstream Hollywood portrayals of genteel poverty, the small town piano teacher who lives in the "rickety house" at the end of the lane still has a used car that runs and never has to worry about utility bills. And of course, if they really wanted to, they could always get a better job, it is just a matter of their psychological desire to protect their individuality and eccentric, artistic temperament.

Like many things that are unrealistic about Hollywood portrayals, I believe this attitude has seeped into a lot of people's thinking, even when they can think critically about it objectively. Tacit cultural beliefs tend to influence even the best critical thinkers. So, for myself, many people believe that since I have a Master's Degree and some work experience, I could just waltz into a job making a good middle class income as part of the Interdepartmental Group on Knowledge Leadership, and that I choose not to out of some type of pique or pride. And it is somewhat difficult to communicate that I can not.