Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, was tapped last year to lead the U.S. House Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth, an issue he said is “in my face every single day” in his southwestern Connecticut district — home to one of the nation’s highest concentrations of millionaires and some of its most economically distressed communities.
The committee was tasked with producing a report with policy recommendations, but Himes wanted to go further than that. Inspired by Depression-era photographer Walker Evans — whose iconic work documented rural poverty on behalf of the Interior and Agriculture departments — the committee assigned itself some creative extra credit: producing a documentary movie. Both projects wrapped up this month.
“I’m just enormously happy with the outcome of the committee,” Himes said. “One of the reasons we get screwed up in Washington is we stop thinking about real people and we start thinking about stereotypes … That destroys your ability, destroys the empathy that is required to be thoughtful about trying to help real people.”
The 30-minute documentary, “Grit & Grace: The Fight for the American Dream,” features three families facing varied economic challenges — a North Carolina man grieving his parents while working to finish college, a family caring for twin sons with special needs in West Virginia and an immigrant mom in California who struggled to keep her business afloat during COVID. Actress Sarah Jessica Parker narrates the piece, acknowledging briefly in the introduction that her own family faced financial difficulties during her childhood.
“It’s pretty hard to tell stories and to be evocative about tax policy,” Himes said. “But when you’re talking about people and their hopes to better themselves economically, you can tell some wonderful stories.”
Drawing a parallel to the U.S. House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021 Capitol attack, Himes said, “They radically changed the way a congressional committee communicates with the American public — and we did the same thing with this documentary.”
This fall, Himes, a former Wall Street banker, won an eighth term as Connecticut’s 4th District representative in Congress. He said he often gets asked how it’s possible to represent a population with such a wide range in income and wealth disparity.
“As far as I can tell, there’s a huge commonality of interests between radically different levels of affluence,” he said. “Nobody wants to spend an hour on [Interstate] 95. Nobody wants an unstable banking system.”
That said, Himes is committed to shaping policy that evens the playing field.
“The system is tilted in favor of people who have already made it, and we need to be really serious about addressing that,” he said.
“There is no moral or economic argument for taxing working people at average rates that are higher than people who are collecting dividends. There is no moral argument for legacy preferences at places like Yale University. So we’ve got to address those things.”
Over the course of 16 months, beginning last July, the Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth conducted a dozen hearings in Washington and several more in locations around the country, addressing a range of issues from education to housing, labor unions, small business support, infrastructure, social programs and tax policy.
Through contacts made at those hearings, the committee identified about 150 families whose stories they explored for the documentary. Ultimately, just three were included.
Himes said he consulted friends who work in television for advice on who should narrate the piece. When someone suggested Parker, Himes said, “I was a little concerned initially that people would see it and say, ‘What in the world is Carrie Bradshaw doing in this documentary?’” referring to her character in the long-running HBO series “Sex and the City.” But, he said, “She does a wonderful job of telling her own story, and it’s a remarkable story.”
The documentary premiered this week in Washington, and it’s available to watch on the congressman’s website as well as on YouTube. Himes said various members of the committee have plans in the works to screen the movie in their districts, and they’re promoting it at universities.
“You know, Netflix or HBO isn’t going to distribute it, but we’re hoping that there will be continued interest in showing it around the country.”