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‘Sesame Street’ and the 99%

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The puppet cast of the children's TV show "Sesame Street" represents a cross section of American voters -- from the orphan child Big Bird to the independently wealthy Bert and Ernie to the homeless Oscar the Grouch.

By Shereen Marisol Meraji, Matt Berger and John Ketchum | Marketplace

Just like that, Big Bird was a new Internet superstar. Twitter reported 17,000 Big Bird tweets a minute last night during the presidential debate, many asking whether the 8-foot-tall yellow creature is in the 99 percent or maybe the 47 percent.

We take a look at some of the characters from “Sesame Street” to see where they fall on the economic continuum.

Big Bird
Big Bird sleeps in a nest outside what looks like an apartment building on “Sesame Street.” His neighbor — Oscar — lives in a trash can. But after doing some investigating, it turns out Big Bird is a perpetual 6-year-old who was put into bird foster care by a well-meaning bird social worker named Miss Finch.

So, it would be safe to say Big Bird is not a privileged muppet. In case you don’t believe it, we asked an expert. Caroline Ratcliffe is an economist and Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute.

“If I had to put him on an economic continuum,” says Ratcliffe, “I would put him in the lower quintiles of the economic distribution.”

Writer Elizabeth Jensen, who has been covering public broadcasting for the past 20 years, says there’s a reason for that. “‘Sesame Street’ was really created to educate poor children and get them ready for school.”

Jensen calls “Sesame Street” Head Start for television, referring to the federal program that preps low income kids for kindergarten. She says it was important for the characters to be relatable, and it’s worked for more than 40 years — no matter what your class background.

Election issues: Big Bird is concerned about the social safety net and whether funding for programs like Head Start will dry up.

Oscar the Grouch
Oscar the Grouch” is the garbage-can dwelling resident on “Sesame Street.” He’s obviously poor, but seems pretty content as he’s able to get by on scavanging for food and other objects. Oscar has even managed to acquire two beat-up cars: an old, broken-down taxi and a car called the “Sloppy Jalopy.” In his spare time, Oscar runs a youth group called the Grouchketeers.

Election issues: Oscar might be worried about government stimulus spending that would hire more firemen, policemen and sanitation workers — they might disturb his trash can.

Biff and Sully
Biff is a shining example of America’s blue-collar middle class. He and his silent pal, Sully, are construction workers on “Sesame Street.” Biff has a wife named Ethel and four kids he supports by doing small jobs around the neighborhood.

Election issues: Jobs, jobs and jobs. Since the collapse of the housing marketing in 2008, Biff and Sully have had a hard time finding construction work. And now he’s worried more than ever about his ability to save for the future, particularly if there are changes to the student-loan program that would make it harder for his kids to attend college.

Count Von Count
The Count is a math teacher by trade. He lives in an old, beat-up mansion that he shares with his collection of bats. He also works part-time as an elevator operator, perhaps indicating that he can’t pay for his bills each month on a teacher’s salary. That said, he does own his home and is able to afford his fancy car “The Countmobile.”

Election issues: As a homeowner, the Count should be worried about changes to mortgage-interest deduction rules. As a teacher, education funding is a big concern.

Bert and Ernie
The pair has no formal employment and a lot of free time, which lead us to believe these two are independently wealthy and living off of investment income. For example, Bert’s favorite pastime is watching pigeons. He also collects cans and paper clips. Ernie, meanwhile, has no formal employment and enjoys taking baths with his “Rubber Duckie” and playing the saxophone.

Election issues: This duo is most focused on proposals to change the investment income tax rate. It’s unclear which way the pair lean on the subject, but this little known fact might reveal something about their political affiliation: Bert is the president of the National Association of W Lovers.

About the author:
Shereen Marisol Meraji is a reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk. Follow her on Twitter.

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