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Jake Weissbourd Headshot

What Bait Car Can Teach Us About American Inequality

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Only a few years after the Great Recession, most people complicit in the systemization of subprime mortgage lending and our economic collapse are back on their feet. Many of them are doing better than ever.

In American society, we rarely see rich people targeted or humiliated. Imagine a reality show where rich people are unknowingly confronted with questionable moral or financial decisions. Let's say they're offered information on an inside trade or given the opportunity to evade a tax. Imagine it's a show that actually follows the police around as they set up these fake scenarios and arrest anyone who fails the tests. A show like that wouldn't survive. The full weight of the wealthy -- the cries of entrapment, the libel suits -- would crush it; the screams of moral outrage would be deafening. And rightly so -- such a show is preying on and commercializing human weakness. Entrapment is also under certain circumstances illegal and under almost any circumstance unethical.

But this kind of show does exist. Only truTV's Bait Car targets the poorest citizens in America's most impoverished communities. The setup is this: Cops place nice cars in clear public view with keys in the ignition, make a commotion to draw people's attention, and then wait for someone to take the "bait." Once the car is stolen, the police lock the doors and windows while viewers are treated to the panicked driver's vain attempts to escape. The car engine is then shut down electronically, and the driver is arrested.

The cops then interrogate the thieves. In one episode, a man responds, "I just got out of school. Man, ya'll set us up, man. Oh my god, man." Another man, asked why he took the truck, responds, "... I got business to take care of. I got kids to take care of. Mouths to feed." A sarcastic narrator, akin to a game show host, explains later, "This guy knows the game is over. Only one thing left to do: Turn on the water works." And the car thief starts to sob.

Is a rich person who chooses, not out of necessity, but greed, to break the law less morally reprehensible than the poor person who is literally baited into stealing a car?

Could our society be more forgiving of the rich than of the poor, many of whom have felt the crushing weight and hopelessness of poverty from almost the moment of their birth?

Apparently, the answers are yes.

For many Americans the show is an affirmation of what they already believe -- that everyone has the agency to better their lives, and poor people are poor because they choose not to lift themselves up. To them, the show is not only entertainment, but it is a public service that helps to weed out the people so unwilling to work they would rather steal. Our society stubbornly holds onto the idea that poverty is a measure of character, and we allow a show like Bait Car to reaffirm this conception.

But this common understanding of poverty -- rooted in our ideals of individualism and hard work; our belief in the American Dream, and the notion that anyone can make it --has been debunked again and again. We live in a country with increasingly more economic inequality and less upward mobility than the rest of the developed world, a country in which the bottom 80 percent of the population owns only seven percent of the wealth and the top one percent owns an astonishing 42 percent.

The reality is that most poor people are cemented into lives of poverty and have insufficient economic, social, and political resources to lift themselves out of it. A huge amount of data indicates that the poor go to the worst schools, have the fewest job prospects, and are far more likely to be handicapped by health problems and stress. Deprived of economic options, some resort to illegal behavior for survival and end up unable to get a job, support their family, or vote. They end up being stripped of economic, social, and political resources, often sending them back into a life of crime.

These are tragic facts. As a culture, we can indulge in the kinds of illusions that shows like Bait Car promote that enable us to deny these facts. We can continue to cage certain Americans in poor communities with scarce opportunities and then laugh when they seek to claw their way out. Or we can reject these notions, scream loudly about this kind of exploitation and press to find remedies for these deep ills in American life.