This article originally appeared at TalkPoverty.org.
Last week, CBS premiered The Briefcase, a new reality program created by David Broome, who also produces The Biggest Loser. In contrast to participants on other hit reality shows, people in The Briefcase aren’t competing for an all-expenses-paid honeymoon prize or the opportunity to work as head chef at a world-renowned restaurant. Rather, struggling families are presented with a briefcase filled with $101,000 cash, enough to lift them out of their current economic hardship so that they are no longer living paycheck to paycheck.
But the “life-altering sum of money,” as Broome puts it, is not offered without a stipulation: The Briefcase then callously calls on these families to determine whether they are willing to share the cash prize with another family that is judged to be in equal or greater need. The briefcase recipients are presented with information about the other family’s hardships in order to determine whether they are more deserving of the cash, or at least some portion of it. Then there is a face-to-face meeting between the families where it is revealed if and how the money will be divvied up, and—wait for it—that both families had actually been given the cash-filled briefcases and told to decide who was more deserving of the dough.
In effect, The Briefcase pits one family’s financial hardship against that of another, pushing families on the brink to “prove themselves” worthy of the cash assistance.
Asking families to determine who among them is experiencing the “most need” or is the “most deserving” is an impossible choice, one that no family should have to make. In 2006, leading up to the collapse of the auto industry, the automotive-parts factory where my father worked appeared certain to close. I distinctly remember the overwhelming anxiety and looming uncertainty about my family’s economic future that I felt at 16 years old: I began to question if we would lose our house, if I would be able to attend college, or if our family would be able to weather an unexpected medical emergency should my father lose his job.
Feeling utterly hopeless, I prayed that another plant would be closed instead of my father’s plant. Ultimately, my father’s factory remained open, but others nearby were shutdown.