The Poverty on Disney’s Doorstep

Rex Features via AP Images

Actors Christopher Rivera, Brooklynn Prince, and Valeria Cotto in The Florida Project 

This article appears in the Winter 2018 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

The opening credits of The Florida Project introduce us to a cotton-candy world, soundtracked to “Celebration” by Kool & the Gang—fitting for a summertime setting of Orlando, Florida, home of Walt Disney World, the ideal vacation destination for nearly every American child. Reinforcing the cheeriness, the colors of this film from director Sean Baker (who previously made Tangerine) are heavily saturated—shades of pink and lavender and blue—just like the buildings along Route 192, where Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), the six-year-old who carries the movie, stays with her mom at the Magic Castle Inn and Suites, a short hitchhike away from Disney’s own Magic Kingdom.

Moonee and her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), live in a world quite different from “the happiest place on earth”—though Moonee’s summer is characterized by magical adventures of her own creation, with her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto).

Moonee doesn’t know she’s homeless—she has a motel bed to sleep in, after all. And Moonee likely doesn’t understand the depths of her poverty, though she probably knows that Disney World is someplace that, close though it may be, is incredibly far away—because of money. (“You know I like pepperoni,” Moonee complains while eating cheese pizza. “Pepperoni costs money,” says her mom.) And Moonee doesn’t question the donation trucks, driven by starry-eyed nonprofit employees, that come by the motel; she just grabs what she wants.

 

THE JUXTAPOSITION OF poverty right outside the consumerist wonderland that is Disney World permeates the entire movie, whether we’re watching Moonee and her friends walk by massive gift shops with names like “Disney Gifts Outlet,” or a shot of a nearby street sign reading “Seven Dwarfs Lane.” But the irony, likely the catalyst of the film’s vision in the first place, never feels tired.

If Baker doesn’t seem to be trying too hard to underline this dichotomy, it’s because he’s not: There’s a palpable dark reality behind fictional Moonee’s situation. On the road to Disney World, just outside the theme park, the landscape is dotted with low-cost motels that serve as proto-homeless shelters for the thousands of families that can’t afford the high rent of a resort town like Orlando. And the recent hurricanes affecting the Caribbean have only exacerbated the problem. Due to Hurricane Maria, approximately 170,000 Puerto Rican evacuees have made their way to Florida. FEMA has placed some of these refugees in approximately 1,500 units of temporary motel housing. Thousands of evacuees are still expected to apply.

As with any good fiction story, whatever the background or plot or setting, the human emotions in The Florida Project are real. The poverty is real, too, the result of tangible policy decisions.

In interviews, Baker has described preparing for the film by researching the real plight of the families living in motels in Central Florida, and “taking trips [to Orlando], meeting children who were 6-7 years old and spent their entire lives in the motels.” One nonprofit that the team worked with to connect with such families, the Community Hope Center, is shown in the film. By infusing the storyline with Orlando’s reality, not “poverty porn,” the movie makes the stories of poor people not only approachable and vivid, but true and worth telling. Baker succeeds so well in this quasi–cinéma vérité approach to childhood poverty that it’s somewhat jarring to see photos of the child actors in tiny ball gowns and suits at the movie’s premiere.

Though poverty is consistently on display, The Florida Project at its heart is about childhood—the recklessness and innocence. How summer embodies everything that childhood can be—freedom and ice cream. Moonee likes to eat maple syrup out of the container. She plays with an electric fan, talking in front of it to make a robot’s voice. She has spitting contests and then becomes best friends with a girl she spits on. She takes a friend on a safari to see the cows in nearby fields.

Moonee’s mother is in many ways a child, too, reveling in—or joining in—Moonee’s pursuits instead of disciplining her.

While fictitious monsters prowl Disney World, real ones lurk around the motel. Pedophiles, for whom poor children could be an easy target. Brutal fights in the parking lot. What a mother will do to provide for her child, no matter how disturbing (turning a trick in her motel room)—while at the same time attempting to shield her from it by hiding her in the bath, the music turned up high. The children can’t fully understand all this, but of course they have seen glimpses of the despair that can’t be disentangled from poverty. “I can always tell when adults are about to cry,” Moonee announces at one point, though she’s not watching her mother, she’s watching an upset tourist couple who mistakenly booked the dumpy Magic Castle Inn instead of a resort near the Magic Kingdom. As children will, Moonee and her friends point out the villains who are closer to the Disney version—“There’s alligators in there,” one kid says, pointing at a swamp. (“If I had a pet alligator,” says Moonee, “I would name it Anne.”)

Along with the dragons, there are heroes, too. Like Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the manager of the motel, who keeps a careful eye on the kids, even though their capers occasionally threaten the normal operations of a motel business. Managing a motel is not easy or well-paid work, and it’s not in his job description to protect the kids and families that live in his motels, though he often does just that. What is in his job description is that, at times, he may have to evict them.

He also reminds them of the power that tourists have in a place like Orlando. The kids will probably annoy other long-term “guests,” but as Bobby says, “You can’t fuck with tourists.” In a service economy like that of Orlando, most people’s wages are only possible due to the leisure activities of others—so yeah, you can’t fuck with tourists. Though service work is generally unreliable with inconsistent and seasonal scheduling, not to mention poorly paid, even that wouldn’t exist without the tourist.

 

BAKER HAS SAID THAT the film is ultimately about the housing crisis, malignly exacerbated by the Great Recession. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the Orlando metro area has the nation’s third-lowest availability of affordable rental housing for households with extremely low incomes—18 units per 100 renter households. The coalition also estimates that to afford a two-bedroom home in Orlando, a household must pull in $40,080 annually—the equivalent of 2.4 full-time jobs at the minimum wage.

While Baker may have intended to focus on the effects of the recession, the film illustrates other policy failures, too, particularly the consequences of welfare reform. Probably in her early to mid-20s, Halley has worked stints as a stripper, but as she says, “she refused to do things in the back” for money, so she loses her job. When Halley explains to her caseworker why she’s out of work, the caseworker tells her, “Well, that’s gonna affect your TANF.”

TANF, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, is what people typically mean when they think of cash welfare. Halley would have been on TANF to help her raise her child. TANF was created by 1996’s welfare reform, the bipartisan effort that upended the welfare system. Its main feature is work requirements; most parents on TANF (it is only open to parents with minor children) must work or participate in other “work activities.” As a result, less than a quarter of families in poverty today receive TANF benefits, down from almost 70 percent of poor families before TANF was enacted.

Before welfare was reformed, mothers received assistance through Aid to Families with Dependent Children (formerly called Aid to Dependent Children). AFDC was focused on providing benefits to mothers so that they wouldn’t have to work. Enacted in the Social Security Act of 1935, the stated purpose of the program was this:

[Mothers’ aid programs, like ADC/AFDC] are not primarily aids to mothers but defense measures for children. They are designed to release from the wage-earning role the person whose natural function is to give her children the physical and affectionate guardianship necessary not alone to keep them from falling into social misfortune, but more affirmatively to rear them into citizens capable of contributing to society.

The evolution from the assistance described above to the meager welfare benefits given today is well documented. When cash welfare was enacted in 1935, black mothers were largely excluded from the program, which was initially intended for white widows. But soon, instead of widows, it was mostly single mothers who utilized the program. And as black Americans saw greater access to welfare, so too were discussions and debates surrounding poverty and welfare increasingly racialized. Think of Ronald Reagan’s mythical “welfare queen,” a strategy that depicted the poor who received government assistance as lazy and dependent. The decades of debate culminated in the ending of AFDC and the emergence of TANF, through the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, signed into law by President Clinton.

Unlike the assistance that AFDC provided, TANF coerces parents into working—a product of a neoliberal era where an individual’s value is conflated with their market value. There is little regard for an individual’s needs, wants, or obstacles; they must work, no matter how small the wage or how difficult the hours.

And so, when Halley loses her job, she loses her cash assistance, a program originally intended to ensure that mothers can stay home and raise their children. Without it, she has to go to great lengths to provide for Moonee, catalyzing the movie’s emotional climax.

(Including acronyms in the film like TANF and DCF [Department of Children and Families], without describing what they stand for, shows not only how policy infects everyday lives, but also how policy is experienced, especially by the poor, as an unintelligible, immutable reality. Like the film’s characters, the film’s audience may not know exactly what these acronyms mean, their history, or their ultimate effects.)

As the summer continues, Halley goes to increasingly greater lengths to provide for Moonee, eventually demonstrating how mothers in poverty may be criminalized for doing whatever they can to provide for themselves and their children. As much as Moonee tries to create her own happiness, the real world bursts in, inspiring Moonee and Jancey to take one final adventure: When they cannot escape the devastation of their reality, they run to where happiness has already been constructed, and promised.

 

THE TITLE OF THE FILM comes from Walt Disney’s original dream of a city of the future: EPCOT (The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow), nicknamed his “Florida Project.” According to Disney, EPCOT would be a “solution to the problems of our cities.”

In Disney’s imagineered Florida Project, “There would be no slum areas because we won’t let them develop.” Everyone would have a job—in fact, be required to have a job. Disney said that his community “will always be a showcase to the world for the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise.” The EPCOT community, of course, was never realized, and instead, Disney’s monument is an Orlando of theme parks and adjacent poverty. The task of showcasing some consequences of American free enterprise has been passed on to the motels of Route 192, where kids like The Florida Project’s Moonee live and play.

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