“Feel-Good” Stories Don’t Feel So Good
While some stories show the best of us, they also expose the harsh political realities we live in. But is there hope? by Michael Berlind
Editor’s Note: A team of volunteers (many who are full-time employees, students, parents) have been collaborating on this story since Spring 2021. Then, on October 1, 2021, The Nation published a story about this exact topic: “‘Feel-Good’ News Story or Poverty Propaganda?” by Kali Holloway. This is very exciting to us, for this means that more and more people are noticing this trend and are eager for the news industry to have honest discussions about what affects our communities and how to truly solve our challenges.
If you regularly peruse the latest news stories or scroll through your social media feeds, you may come across a heartwarming, feel-good story like this one:
Or this one, published by CNN under its weekly section titled “The Good Stuff”:
Here’s one more:
The pattern? Most evidently, these stories deliver overwhelmingly positive examples of ordinary people coming together to support one another through tough times. The appeal of articles such as these is clear: when a teacher, a nurse, or a neighbor faces financial and material struggles – as you or I may have – isn’t it comforting to know that their fellow citizens banded together to provide some relief? Beyond the simple rush of learning about a positive outcome to an unfortunate situation, it’s also not unreasonable to assume that many may infer hope for themselves, especially considering that roughly 40% of Americans wouldn’t be able to cover a $400 emergency.
That kind of shocking and scary statistic is exactly what you won’t find in these supposedly happy stories, which generally contain little to no analysis of the underlying conditions that enable them. The authors may not be cognizant of the deeper factors at play, may be guided by editorial guidelines, or maybe, like many of us, they are simply caught up in these heart-warming bubbles that shield from the gut-wrenching realities.
In truth, the circumstances befalling the subjects of these stories are not cases of pure bad luck or random misfortune, but rather the direct, devastating consequences of negligent policy decisions that misuse and abuse our tax dollars – forcing communities to rescue one another while our tax dollars go to bloated military spending and corporate bailouts.
There’s an interesting dynamic here. On the one hand, corporate executives see their compensations soar while wages are stagnant, jobs are cut, and living costs rise. Everyone is pissed. On the other hand, the country is more polarized than ever, as we claw at one another’s throats online and increasingly in person. At the same time, we open our hearts and what’s left of our pocket books to help out our neighbors when they truly need it. It is indeed an interesting paradox that while these stories demonstrate that people do believe in helping one another, they do not discuss policies that would help people on a much larger scale.
There are tax-funded programs to assist costs for healthcare, housing, and education; and there will always be stories of people stepping up to help the less fortunate, but these are not permanent solutions, nor do they address the heart of the problem.
Take the first piece mentioned above from USA Today, about the Minnesota toddler who had students build him a power wheelchair when his family couldn’t afford it. Not mentioned in the story is the fact that, in the United States, if you have a serious medical condition, you are not guaranteed to receive the treatment and care you need. Instead, you must pray that you have high-quality private health insurance, which is not the case for over 40% of Americans below the age of Medicare eligibility. Around 32 million Americans have no health insurance at all. Healthcare costs are increasingly unaffordable, and medical bills are the number one cause of bankruptcy in the United States. While health insurance companies would have you believe that these costs are merely the necessary price for adequate care (while suggesting that patients adopt “healthier lifestyles”), the facts reveal that it has more to do with corporate decision-making between insurance companies and healthcare providers that results in higher prices but has little impact on quality of care. Only in a country where healthcare has turned into a for-profit industry, could stories like this Minnesota boy’s even exist.
Consider this story about how a 7-year-old from Alabama is selling lemonade to help pay for her brain surgeries, or the tale of how co-workers donate sick days and personal time off for a nurse who can’t work while battling leukemia. All of these stories, while optimistic demonstrations of community support, are hardly complete without a discussion of the less-than-cheery context surrounding them. A true feel-good story might be one that discusses how the other 99% of people in this situation could also be helped – or ideally, avoid it altogether. After all, if we truly do want to help one another, as these feel-good stories prove, why wouldn’t we do it in a more efficient and effective way?
Medicare For All legislation would save trillions in overall healthcare spending, ensure comprehensive coverage for all, and would benefit companies and small businesses as well as individuals. With a Medicare expansion being grappled with in the Senate, it’s worth noting that expanding Medicare would reduce costs for employers at a rate that grows the more the age of eligibility age is lowered. While many politicians talk of achieving accessible, affordable, or even universal healthcare, few push for a single-payer Medicare For All system that has support among a majority of Democratic and independent voters, as well as a significant chunk of Republicans. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden has never supported Medicare for All, Vice President Kamala Harris has flip-flopped more than once in her support, and as of October 2021, the overwhelmingly popular public option has not been included in any prominent bill or official White House proposal, despite being a campaign pledge.
The fact is that no major permanent healthcare reform has yet been attempted under the current administration. While a step forward from the active attempt to repeal our existing healthcare protections, maintaining the status quo is an untenable position. How many lives could be saved by proven legislation to guarantee high-quality, comprehensive healthcare for all? This would replace the need for individuals having to rely on charitable neighbors or colleagues via a successful fundraiser, while others are unable to do so, all the while we’re also paying our taxes to ultimately fund the already wealthy. According to a study by Yale University, the University of Florida, and the University of Maryland, around 68,000 lives a year would be saved.
Education and Living Wages
Several “feel-good” stories concern themselves with young children dealing with the economic pitfalls associated with simply going to school. The costs of our education system are an immense burden on Americans throughout their lives, starting even before middle-school. This brings us to stories like this one, where an 8-year-old boy paid off the lunch debt for his entire school by selling key chains. In another instance, it’s a 9-year-old boy.
The concept of “school lunch debt” is shocking, and yet studies show it to be a very real issue, with over 1.5 million students from over 75% of schools owing lunch debt. It doesn’t take much bravery to observe that “school lunch debt,” exacerbating already existing social and economic inequalities, should not be an actual problem in the richest country in the history of the world. When children must rely on the charity of their classmates or anonymous donors, and when laws must be passed to ensure that children are no longer shamed and denied proper rations for owing lunch debt, we must wonder why such conditions were ever allowed to fester in the first place. After all, many parents can’t afford the small amount of money it costs to pay for school lunches, and may have little to no time to properly grocery shop and make their own meals due to working long hours and/or several jobs just to keep up with the rising cost of living and stagnant wages.
The cycle is bound to repeat when you consider the overwhelming amount of debt owed for higher education student loans. As of 2016, the cost of attending public college has risen by 140% since 1971. Student loan debt increased by a whopping 511% between 1999 and 2011. That makes sense when you consider these staggering facts:
- The cost of public college in 1971 for men was 20.4% of their median income per year. It was 51.8% by 2016.
- The cost of public college in 1971 for women was 73.7% of their median income per year. It was 80.9% by 2016.
- Tuition, fees, room, and board per year in 1971 for a public 4-year college was $1,410. That would be $8,734 when adjusted in Dec. 2017. However, by 2016, the cost had risen to $20,967 per year.
On this issue, we’re seeing a different breed of “feel-good” stories, wherein the Biden administration’s cancellation of $3 billion in student loans is (rightfully) lauded – without noting that this represents only 0.17% of the $1.73 trillion owed in collective student loan debt – a number that continues to grow. Thus far, despite Biden campaigning on this issue, and the calls of progressives and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to cancel student debt, we have only gotten the President’s “encouragement” to the idea of forgiving $50k/person. It’s worth nothing that only the President has the power to make student loan debt forgiveness a reality.
Other “feel-good” stories continue to reveal how desperate the United States is becoming, and not because its citizens are lazy or don’t care about one another, but because our elected officials are not prioritizing our most basic rights. Take the elderly man from the introductory headline who had been living in his car for the past eight years, despite working as a substitute teacher. The money raised for him by former students is a blessing, but it’s important to realize that rent is unaffordable for new teachers, who must spend their own money on school supplies, in almost every major U.S. city.
The fact is that the housing crisis, while greatly exacerbated over the past year, is hardly a new problem, or even one uniquely linked to unemployment. A recent study from the National Low Income Housing Coalition tells us that people working a full-time minimum wage job cannot afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the country. In recent years, it’s estimated that more than 550 thousand people are experiencing homelessness in the United States. Other studies point to high rates of childhood homelessness; for example, 1.4 million children enrolled in public schools experienced homelessness during the 2016-2017 school year.
Where “feel-good” stories want us to rejoice over an 8-year-old starting a charity, a high-school teacher taking a second job to help students forced to sleep outdoors, a daughter sacrificing her education for her mother’s rent, or neighbors coming together to help a mother and son living out of their car, these will not solve another epidemic that is rampant throughout America: growing poverty and decreasing quality of life due to a litany of government policies forcing us to bail one another out while corporations and corporate politicians use our tax dollars to bail themselves out. Key symptoms include low incomes and high housing costs. In 1971, the median existing price for buying a house was $23,000 ($152,030 when adjusted for Dec. 2017). Yet, a 2019 median existing price for buying a house was $283,600. That’s an 86.5% increase. Where these issues could be addressed through policies like raising the federal minimum wage, or more permanent supportive housing, people must once again rely on the charity of benevolent souls.
Other stories continue to point to ways in which insurance companies and multinational corporations, in bed with corporate elected officials, are not only failing working Americans, but then blaming us for the failures. Take the man well past the age of a dignified and deserved retirement who is forced to work an extra 30 hours a week to complement his social security benefits. Rather than a tale to celebrate, this should instead prompt our political leaders to address cuts to programs that benefit the elderly, like Medicare and Social Security. We also have individuals who cannot afford the costs of buying or maintaining a vehicle, and must rely on their communities or the charity of a random customer to help them with their transportation needs.
These stories beg a question that is rarely asked: why should people working full-time jobs – let alone those branded “essential workers” during a pandemic – struggle to afford basic necessities? It can be easy to grow apathetic in the face of our country’s deep economic struggles, whether concerning wages, housing, healthcare, or education. It can also be discouraging to see how divided people are becoming around these issues. Whether due to mere lazy journalism, or the status-quo loving nature of corporate-owned outlets that are misleading the general public, these types of “feel-good” stories serve to deepen that apathy and division. Who benefits from this bizarre paradox where we distract ourselves by pointing fingers at each other while also raising money for one another, while the wealthy pocket our taxes? We all know the answer. The normalization of inequality and injustice, of a government that does not serve the people who voted for them, of a suffering population left to fend for itself – must end. That starts by looking beyond superficial stories of temporary relief, honestly assessing our problems, no longer allowing the corporate media to distract and divide, and demanding solutions that rise to the challenge.
Editor: Alison Hartson
Graphic Designer: Godiva Morte
Michael is somewhat of a third culture kid, an American born in Cyprus, and raised in France through his high-school years. He grew politically aware during the Bush era and the dawn of the Iraq war, which his parents – a former diplomat and a journalist – were fervently opposed to.
While he cast his first vote in 2012 as a college student, it wasn’t until the 2016 election cycle that he became more educated and critically-minded about the systemic political issues we face. He was particularly inspired by Bernie Sanders’ people-powered campaign and willingness to fight for real change. Now firmly progressive and engaged – and an avid viewer of The Young Turks – Michael has been vocal in supporting progressive policies, media, and candidates. He phone-banked and canvassed for local school board and city council races the following year, and was an early supporter of Justice Democrats like AOC.
In addition to volunteering for Bernie 2020, he is very proud to be working with the TYT Army in their fight against bias and propaganda in our media, which he sees as crucial to changing the political narrative of our lives. Michael has a day-job as a customer service representative, and is also working towards a career in screenwriting.