Five Things We Could Change if the Real World Worked More like the Fictional World of Annie

In the spirit of the season, this post combines a few of my favorite year-end traditions—reflecting on the past, setting goals for the future and December movie releases. At the top of my “movies to see” list is a remake of one of my childhood favorites, Annie. The 2014 adaptation of the film includes a few twists on the 1982 version of the film I first fell in love with—the most obvious being African American actors playing the lead roles of Annie and Will Stacks (originally Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks).

In fact, Annie’s story has been reincarnated many times over since cartoonist, Harold Gray, first introduced his Little Orphan Annie comic strip in 1924 but the basic premise has stayed the same. A rich benefactor, who has amassed immense wealth through capitalism (specifically in World War I, hence the name Warbucks), adopts a little girl and transforms her life from that of a poor, abused, outcast orphan into a beloved daughter with full access to anything she can dream of.

Early versions of the Little Orphan Annie comic strip often espoused views of politics that sound awfully familiar today—including the idea that providing the masses with jobs that pay fairly and treating workers with respect is the obligation of virtuous capitalists. Also central to the story of Annie is how the perspective and priorities of the adults in charge of her well-being shape the child’s future. As a man of great wealth, power and influence, Warbucks didn’t suggest a bootstraps approach as the way to a better life, rather he offered the girl support as needed and often intervened in Annie’s life during crisis.

While Annie’s story is a fictional expression of her creator’s political views, it can also serve as a metaphor for many of today’s social and economic challenges. I’m not suggesting in any way that paternalism is the solution to inequality and poverty. Rather, I offer a list of five things that might be different if more of our nation’s wealth, power and influence were used to positively transform lives and promote economic mobility.

  1. We could get to full employment and close racial unemployment gaps. Currently, the Fed holds the most power to determine how close the economy gets to a full recovery and how fast wages grow based on when they decide to raise interest rates. Strong job growth this year has offered a glimpse of how critical this is, especially for people of color. Even though African Americans and Latinos experienced greater labor market gains than whites in 2014, the pace of recovery remains uneven by state and race.
  2. More Americans would get a pay raise. Wages for the vast majority of workers have been stagnant or falling for the last 35 years. Progress has been gradual this year as several states and localities increased their minimum wage and the president took action to reform the immigration system. Yet, the erosion of labor standards and diminished bargaining power for workers over the years has limited wage growth for the masses. Wage theft and outdated overtime rules continue to rob those at the middle and lower end of the wage distribution while CEOs make nearly 300 times what the average worker earns.
  3. We could dramatically reduce child poverty. A lot of this reduction would flow from increased employment and higher wages (especially for working mothers), but also through strengthening safety net programs.
  4. Schools would be desegregated—at least by socioeconomic status (SES) if not also by race. Sixty years after Brown v Board, black and Hispanic kindergarteners are disproportionately in high poverty schools, most of which are also predominantly minority schools. As it happens, school segregation stems from neighborhood segregation (both by race and SES), producing a number of cumulative negative effects on opportunity and academic achievement.
  5. We might make real progress toward closing the wealth gap over the next generation. This assumes that at a minimum we accomplish numbers 1 through 4 and then build upon that foundation with policies that expand rather than constrict access to higher education and a range of assets. Beyond that, we also must take steps to affirmatively remedy the effects of centuries of institutionalized racial inequality that continue to affect household wealth accumulation.

While I’m thrilled about the increased diversity in the casting of the new Annie movie, I don’t expect that alone to change the plot of the movie much. No, that will only happen if those characters DO something different. Perhaps that’s the greatest lesson to be learned.