Unless you live in a cave, under a rock, or in an Afghanistan bunker, you’ve probably heard about the 2004 documentary “Super Size Me.” This fascinating film follows director Morgan Spurlock as he embarks on 30 days of eating nothing but McDonald’s cuisine while exploring the obesity issue plaguing America. The humorous, yet thought-provoking documentary was lauded by critics and audiences and deservedly earned an Academy Award nomination (unfortunately, it lost out to “Born into Brothels,” which I hear is a good film, but nowhere near as interesting or entertaining).
Morgan has parlayed the success he garnered from the big screen and has created a documentary television series for FX. “30 Days” takes the “Super Size Me” concept with a broader scope: examine what it’s like to live someone else’s life for 30 days. Each episode follows someone who puts their daily routine on hold for a month and slips into the shoes of a different lifestyle. For example, within the first few episodes we are treated to a peek of what it would be like to be a devout Christian living as a Muslim, and a Midwestern homophobe living in the heart of gay culture in San Francisco’s Castro District (both of which sound like damn interesting premises).
Always being one to volunteer himself for human experiments, Morgan took on the challenge for the premiere episode, and dragged his fiancée, Alexandra (Alex) Jamieson, along for the ride. The mission was to see what it would be like to live off minimum wage salaries for 30 days. So, after Morgan and Alex attended the 2005 Academy Awards, they left their comfortable lifestyles in New York City and moved to Columbus, Ohio for a (temporary) life of poverty. Ohio was selected because the state was a good representation of the hardships facing America today, in that it has lost 250,000 jobs over the past 4 years (yikes!).
Going into this experiment Morgan set three rules they had to follow: each of them would hold a minimum wage gig, all their credit cards and bank accounts were to be frozen for the duration, and each would start out with cash equaling one week’s worth of minimum wage job pay (that’s $206, but just $178.47 after taxes). I don’t know about you, but just the thought of slaving away at a full-time job but still living below the poverty line, is enough to make this (relatively) spoiled boy avoid this little test like the plague. Fortunately for us, Morgan and Alex are troopers and sacrificed themselves for the sake of opening some eyes.
The maiden day of Morgan and Alex’s adventure was dedicated to finding a place to live. After a day of searching over-priced hovels, they settled on a dirty, ant-infested dump of an apartment situated above a crack den in an area called the Bottoms (just the name of the district should convey how shabby the living arrangements were). For $325 a month, you get what you pay for, I guess. They were lucky enough to find an understanding landlord who allowed them to pay just $200 upfront and make payments on the remaining $125 of the rent and the $325 security deposit (something tells me the landlord normally isn’t that agreeable, but made some concessions when he saw the TV cameras). The place is filthy, freezing and lacking furniture, but what the heck; it’s a roof over their heads.
Day two brought on the search for jobs. Alex ended up with a position bussing tables and washing dishes in a coffee house (which is an improvement over the big sacrifice this vegan chef would have had to make if she settled for one of the fast food jobs she applied for), and Morgan signed up with a temp agency that would hook him up with day laborer assignments. It was actually kind of cute to see how excited these two got when they reunited at the end of the day and shared their (good?) news of employment.
Throughout the month, the day-to-day grind of each of our subjects begins to wear on them. Alex is tired, cold and grumpy, and Morgan is feeling a little deflated because he works an 11-hour day and brings home just $45.26! After taxes he made about $4.20 an hour, well below minimum wage even though he was “making” $7.00 an hour. To make matters worse, each of them needed a trip to the emergency room (her: urinary tract infection; him: wrist damage from a landscaping gig) and take on the charges since neither has health insurance. This is where things got comical (a little sarcasm for ya) – Alex’s hospital bill of $438 included a $300 charge for just for using the emergency room, whereas Morgan faced a bill of $779, including $551 for walking in the door and $40 for medical supplies, which was a simple, average, everyday ace bandage… utterly ridiculous. One can only hope that exposure like this will shed some light on the travesty that is our health care system and something will be done about it (yeah right, and monkeys may fly out of my butt).
To further complicate this voyage through poverty, Morgan takes on a second job in an attempt to pull in more greenbacks, but ends up straining his relationship with Alex because he is gone for 18 hours a day. Couples who make $25,000 per year, or less, are twice as likely to divorce as those making over $50,000, so it’s no wonder many people take on extra jobs to make ends meet. Problem is, working the extra hours for the extra money, means less time at home with the family… the ultimate Catch 22. Morgan and Alex even “borrowed” his niece and nephew for a couple of days during the experiment, and the extra financial strain brought on by children was mind boggling. This single guy and father of none (other than two cats and one plant) cannot imagine trying to survive in these circumstances (again, thank you Morgan and Alex for doing it for me and conveniently putting it on my TV so I can live vicariously).
Intermingled with the daily doings of their new lives, Morgan shared some nuggets of information that were probably new and thought-provoking to many in the viewing audience. A couple of these facts really piqued my attention. Firstly, the federal minimum wage standard of $5.15 an hour has not changed since 1997. The cost of living has skyrocketed during that timeframe, though the law that was designed to keep citizens out of poverty is not changing with it. Every year Senator Ted Kennedy sends a bill to Congress seeking a raise to the minimum wage, and every year it is defeated because it is believed that the increase would force employers to cut jobs. While Congress continues to stomp on the little people, they have seen fit to approve $27,000 salary increases for themselves… utterly ridiculous, yet again.
Secondly, and on a more positive note, I learned that there are actually kind people in this world (watch the news on a daily basis and you’ll tend to think otherwise). When Morgan and Alex grew weary of sitting on the floor to eat with the ants, they looked into organizations that provide assistance for the needy. It turns out Columbus has a network of charities that aid the working poor with basic living needs. Within walking distance of their slum…er… I mean apartment, is the Westside Free Store, church-run store where everything is totally free. Steve Rodgers is the founder of the Free Store, and collects donations such as toys, clothes, dishes, furniture, food/snacks, etc. for those who cannot afford such basic pleasures on their meager salaries. It is truly inspiring to see people with kind hearts treat citizens with the respect they deserve… something the government seems to know nothing about. If you find yourself inspired, you don’t have to live in Columbus, Ohio to help those in need. It can be done from the comfort of your own computer on web sites like SwapThing.com, which has a donation program called ShareThing that allows users to give to charitable organizations and receive a tax-deductible receipt in return – a win-win situation for everyone.
In the end, Morgan and Alex survive their ordeal (I classify it as an ordeal by the time they get to the finish line) with their sanity and relationship intact. I won’t pretend to be the most socially conscious individual on this planet, but this series did open my eyes and I can only hope it opened the eyes of many others; enough to demand some changes and get on the right track to putting an end to poverty. Morgan and Alex, you are brave souls… thanks for taking one for the team, and here’s to hoping more comes from it than an entertaining hour of television.