The Journey is Complete!
Washington –The circuitous route I took between Santa Barbara and Washington totaled nearly 5,000 miles, but in a nation riveted by perhaps the most historic election in American history, it was also so much more. A month ago, I went to Google Maps to define a route that would take me across America, through mountains and desert, big cities and small towns, and, inevitably, through parts of this country both red and blue. After three rental cars, 17 states and almost a month on the road, I returned with a snapshot of this nation wracked by economic crisis and fears of the future, where Americans of every stripe have one eye on the problems of the present even as the other looks nervously toward nation’s next chapter after Election Day.
There are so many examples of how people are already being affected. The Clements family in Santa Barbara is now homeless for the first time, a fact they attribute to the economic situation.
Young Rae Cho’s apparel business in Milwaukee is off 50 percent.
Anna Lear has lost 40 pounds because the increased cost of food and gas. She keeps the meat for her children.
Many of the people I met preferred not to appear on camera. Someone who sticks in my mind is Mary Wong, who runs the Golden Harvest restaurant in Halstead, Kan. Wong was born in China and first immigrated to Australia. But it was the American Dream that convinced her to pull up stakes and start over again. She wound up in this small town in southeast Kansas.
Wong said her family is among the only minorities in this part of country, but that didn’t matter. She and her husband worked hard, earned the respect of the locals and now own two restaurants, where they work seven days a week.
In the last few months, business is way down, but that doesn’t matter to Wong. What’s important is her 16-year-old daughter, who has recently been diagnosed with cancer. She’ll survive. The family has medical insurance, but they’re still getting bombarded with bills.
Once the bills are taken care of and the evitable battle with the insurance company is complete, Wong worries about how her daughter will continue the family legacy by taking over the restaurant. How will she ever afford health insurance with a “pre-condition,” Wong wonders.
All of this had led Wong to one difficult conclusion: her American Dream is over. It’s painful for her to admit, but if she wasn’t rooted in rural Kansas, she says that she’d return to Australia. She feels that it’s not the same as it was a decade ago. Even with hard work, she can’t make it here any longer.
The hard times I found across the country have also effected how people view the presidential election. As polls indicate, the economy has pushed more people into Barack Obama’s camp.
I saw this firsthand in Colorado Springs, Colo. The “Springs,” as it’s called locally, is among the most conservative places in Colorado. It’s the home of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family and the New Life Church.
I met up with Jon Wuerth, a volunteer for Barack Obama, as he went door-to-door, trying to convince registered independents to vote for Obama. He said 90 percent of the people he met quickly identified the economy as the most important issue.
At one stop, Wuerth got into a long discussion with a man wearing a NASCAR hat who said he voted for Bush twice.
“With the economy the way it is now, we really do need change,” the man said, but then complained about the Democratic Party’s support for abortion and gay rights, “That’s the tough part right there because I don’t agree with that stuff. I don’t agree with that, but I do agree that we need change.”
As he stood up to leave the man’s apartment, Wuerth heard what he was waiting for.
“If you were taking a poll right now, I’d probably have to say I’m going with Barack Obama,” the man said.
Obama was a constant theme throughout the trip. Whether they were supporters or detractors, everyone wanted to talk about Obama. A lot of what I heard I couldn’t capture on tape. I heard the N-word more often that I expected, once even in conjunction with “half-breed.”
More often, I heard Obama described as a Muslim.
In Oakley, Kan., I stopped in an antique gun store to talk to the owner. He was convinced Obama was a Muslim. I told him that everyone, including John McCain had denied the rumor. But he refused to listen. He was sure that he’d seen Obama himself on television “admitting” to being a Muslim. He went on to say that folks here were burying guns in the backyard because they were worried that an Obama administration would curtail the rights of gun owners.
Around the corner from the gun shop, I found a family sitting out on their front porch. As soon I identified myself as a journalist, they all blurted out-- almost in unison-- that Obama is a Muslim. Then one man said that he expects Obama to be assassinated soon, other sentiment I heard often. When I asked him whom he’ll be voting for, he replied Hillary Clinton, unaware that she’s no longer running.
Mostly, I found people who were engaged in the campaign, opinionated, but not in a partisan way. They were voters who were trying hard to understand the issues and make the best decision. After getting bombarded with political rhetoric from pundits on cable TV and seeing the country displayed in maps of bright red or blue, it was refreshing to talk to so many reasonable voters.
Near Garden City, Kan., I spent the morning harvesting corn with Greg Stone. He’s a third generation farmer who’s torn between the candidates. He likes Obama because of the Illinois Senator’s support for ethanol subsidies and because Stones suspects he has overall better farm policies. But as a socially conservative Christian, Stone typically likes Republicans because of their stance on social issues like abortion. When I was there he was leaning towards McCain, but said he wouldn’t be horrified with an Obama administration.
In my neighborhood in New York, you would never see a McCain poster in anyone’s window. I don’t know a single neighbor who votes Republican. In some ways, I expected places like Garden City, Kansas, or Cimarron County, Oklahoma, to be mirror images of that. Although I met more people supporting the Republican ticket in “red” areas, I also found more diversity than I expected. In Oakley, where I heard Obama bashed for being a Muslim, I also saw several Obama signs in yards.
I think Obama volunteer Jon Wuerth summed up the reason during our time in socially conservative Colorado Springs.
“I think we’re getting a little more progressive in this community,” Wuerth said, “And I think the economy has a lot to do with that.”
Altoona, Penn. -- Vicky Zeoli has always had a love for books. She reads three a week. So when her three kids were out of the house and her husband had a good stable job, she decided to make the hour-long drive to Penn State University each day to go to college for the first time. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in education when she was 53.
That’s when her life took an unexpected turn. Her husband lost his job and with it, her medical insurance. Then she had a stroke.
Her health has recovered, but her finances have not.
“This has been the worst time for us,” Zeoli said, holding back tears. “We’re behind in our mortgage payments. We were in foreclosure. We almost lost the house.”
When school started this fall she was able to make enough money by substitute teaching to catch up on the $350 monthly mortgage payments, but at 61, she says it’s nearly impossible to get a fulltime teaching job with health benefits. Administrators prefer younger candidates, she said. At one point, she even tried getting job at Wal-Mart, but was told she was overqualified because of her degree.
Zeoli’s husband, Don, 57, became disabled after losing his job and collects social security disability payments, but that doesn’t include medical insurance.
After being rejected for medical insurance through Pennsylvania’s welfare agency (her income was over the limit), she started going to a free clinic funded by the local hospital and staffed by volunteer doctors. She credits the clinic with saving her life.
“I can’t afford the medicine,” said Zeoli, who is an insulin-dependent diabetic, “The insulin is way out of my price range.”
Zeoli’s doctor, Zane Gates, has recently seen a “dramatic increase” of people like Zeoli seeking free medicine in the clinic.
“When I first started, it was mostly people who had been suddenly unemployed,” he said. “Now it’s mostly the employed. With the economy getting worse and worse and worse that number is going to skyrocket.”
Both presidential candidates offer health plans to help cover the 46 million Americans, who like Zeoli, lack medical insurance. Gates prefers Barack Obama’s plan because he believes it will cover more people. He has doubts, however, that it will pass even a Democratic Congress because of the huge price tag.
“We might be able to put more people on insurance but with a 9.9 percent inflation rate in health care it’s not sustainable financially for this country,” Gates said.
Zeoli is fed up with the rhetoric of the campaign and both candidates. From her perspective, the issue is simple.
“I need medical coverage that I can afford,” she said.
Motivating Republicans in Toledo
Toledo, Ohio – In this city in northwest Ohio, the one thing that motivates Republicans is the same thing that has Democrats fired up: Barack Obama.
“In terms of the economy, it’s more being drawn away from Barack Obama,” said Becky Tighe when asked why she supported John McCain for president.
After talking to McCain supporters about the economy for several hours at McCain’s Toledo headquarters, it quickly became clear that it was fear of Obama’s economic proposals more than excitement for McCain’s plans that has these Republicans motivated.
In the office, volunteers phoned registered Republicans urging them to vote as a steady stream of people came in to pick up yard signs and tickets for an upcoming speech by Sarah Palin. And when asked about their reasons for supporting John McCain, the response was nearly always the same. Whether they were former Hillary Clinton supporters, independents, or Republicans, nearly everyone here said they feared Obama would raise taxes and “spread the wealth.”
“The democrats are going to take the money from the people who are working the hardest and try to decide who they’d like to distribute it to,” said Paula Hyder.
Lucas County Republican Party chairman Jon Stainbrook said that he’s seen a surge of excitement in his office after two events. First, he said, was the pick of Sarah Palin for VP. The second was when Toledo native Joe Wurzelbacher, aka “Joe the Plumber” entered the spotlight during the last presidential debate.
“When ‘Joe the Plumber’ came into the race, it just exploded,” said Stainbrook, “It’s been amazing at how many people said ‘I’m a common every day Joe.’”
The McCain campaign points to a tightening in some polls as indication that “Joe’s” message of questioning Obama’s tax plan is getting traction. Wurzelbacher is campaigning for McCain this week in Ohio.
At least among McCain supporters in Toledo, “Joe,” and the doubts he raised about Obama, is on the tips of everyone’s tongue here.
“I don’t have very much wealth and to spread it around is just not good for me,” said Tighe.
(I spent time with the Obama campaign last week in Colorado)
The Cost of Keeping a Job
Three Rivers, Mich. – For the last three decades the most prized possession in this small town in southwestern Michigan was a job at the American Axle plant. It was backbreaking work, assembling axles mostly for General Motors four-wheel-drive vehicles, but the pay was excellent. With overtime, workers could rake in six figures a year.
But during the last few years, Americans stopped buying SUVs and the axles that the plant here manufactured. When the United Auto Workers contract was up earlier this year, American Axle needed to make big cuts. There were concerns that the factory, the largest employer in Three Rivers, might pull up stakes and relocate to Mexico.
After a three-month strike, the UAW reached a deal that would give hundreds of workers buyouts. Fewer than half of the plant’s workers remained on the job and they were forced to take up to a 50 percent pay cut.
Although Three Rivers narrowly averted an economic catastrophe that have hit other Michigan towns like Flint, the hundreds of workers at American Axle now have to deal with their own personal financial catastrophe.
“Everybody I know has had a problem,” said Tim Rowley, a senior axle technician at the plant.
Rowley’s wage fell about 40 percent, from $28.50 an hour to $17.50 an hour. He is also receiving a “buy-down,” a lump sum each year that is supposed to help with the transition to less income. He will get about $30,000 each year for the next three years.
The buy down was not enough for the divorced father of three to keep his house. After missing a couple payments during the strike, he forced to sell his house at a loss.
Now Rowley, 40, and his girlfriend, Tammie Wrenn, 37, are getting used to life with less income than they had when they were in their 20s. They’re clipping coupons and skipping vacations. They’ve even decided not to have a child for the time being.
“The extreme changes that have gone on in our lives over the last seven months have pretty much pooh-poohed that idea,” Rowley said.
For Rowley, the one bright spot for on the horizon is the election. He’s a staunch Democrat and is hoping a president Obama would live up to his rhetoric on the campaign trail bashing the North American Free Trade Agreement. Rowley blames NAFTA for the loss of manufacturing jobs.
“If he does half of what he says, what he wants to do, he’ll be the best president ever. If he does half!” Rowley, said.
Wrenn is a staunch Republican and although the polls show the economic downturn has pushed more voters into Obama’s camp, she doesn’t buy Obama’s message of change. She supports John McCain.
“Obama’s not going to get into office and immediately things are going to change and it’s all going to be this rosy fix to everything,” she said.
THEN AND NOW
From the New Deal to a "Great Deal"
During the 1930s, the government hired photographers to document the toll the Great Depression was having on average Americans (all the previous photos I’ve featured fall into that category). The photographers were also asked to shoot the huge government projects that were part of the New Deal. In Chicago, Jack Delano captured the opening the Ida B. Wells housing project in 1941. For the city’s poor, who had been living in substandard housing, the low-rise buildings provided decent apartments for decades after the Great Depression. But by the 1980s, the projects became a symbol of urban poverty and decay, just the issues that the original project was meant to fix.
Today the site is being developed again with the hopes of eliminating the same problems. But this time officials are betting on a mixed income development with private homeownership and rentals. Almost all the original buildings have now been torn down. Oakwood Shores, as the area is now called, offers "great deals:" condos from $179,900 and houses for $699,900 as well as apartments reserved for low-income renters like those in the original Ida B. Wells project.
A Retail Slump Threatens an American Dream
Milwaukee – Young Rae Cho has been selling hiphop clothing in the inner city for 20 years after immigrating from South Korea. He stayed in the neighborhood through the good years and bad. But now he is frightened for the first time, not because of crime, but because of the economic downturn.
“September [was] real slow. I got nervous, you know, scared,” Cho said, “October [was] more slow!”
September usually marks the beginning of Cho’s best period, which lasts through the end of the year. But last month, he said sales were down more than 50 percent from the same period last year. It’s the worst he’s ever seen it and that makes him worry about having enough money to send his two kids to college. His oldest child is 16.
So he’s made some changes. He’s putting more items on sale. He’s closing an hour early.
But perhaps the biggest change occurred six weeks ago when he bought a shotgun and handgun. Cho said there has been an increase in armed robberies in the neighborhood because of the economic hard times. He can’t afford a security guard like he’s had in the past, so he’s arming himself. He hangs the shotgun on the baseball hat rack to deter any would-be thieves.
The recent drop in sales has also made him look at the presidential election more closely. Cho supports John McCain because of his message of lower taxes, but he fears a McCain administration would not help the inner city as much as Democrat Barack Obama. And his business depends on a strong local economy.
“I don’t know which one [is] better,” Cho said, “I’m thinking now.”
The Town the Economic Downturn Forgot
Colesburg, Iowa – During the same week in September when the government took over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the Farmers Savings Bank in eastern Iowa opened its fifth branch. The number of foreclosures the bank’s had? Zero. Tightening its credit? Not at all.
“At the local banks, you don’t see those problems. We’re fine,” said Mark E. White, the bank’s president and CEO.
The area around Colesburg, Iowa, seems impervious to the nationwide economic downturn. The farms are doing well. Farm equipment dealers can’t keep tractors in stock. Property prices are good. As banks elsewhere in the country restrict lending or recall equity lines of credit, the Farmers Savings Bank is continuing lending as if nothing is happening.
“The types of customers that have gotten loans through our institution in the past will continue to get loans through us,” said Michael J. Funke, the senior vice president, a loan officer and part-time farmer.
The bank was founded in 1907 and was one of the few in this area that made it through the Great Depression. It prides itself on being conservative in lending and knowing exactly how the loan is going to be used. Recently, as other banks allowed financing for homes up to 90 or even 100 percent of the home’s value, the Farmers Savings Bank kept the traditional 80/20 rule, which means buyers had to have 20 percent of the down payment in cash. They kept all their mortgages in-house.
During the real estate boom, they lost business to out-of-town banks, which offered better deals. Now some of those banks have folded and the customers are returning.
“We’ve been a little more conservative, which has really paid off,” said Funke.
On a rainy Thursday afternoon, Joel Lindaman, a local farmer and businessman came into the bank. Lindaman said he already has more than half dozen loans from the bank and was looking for more. He needed some money to buy farm equipment and some land on which he was hoping of building a campground for tourists. Lastly, he wanted money for a church that he wanted to fix up and lease out to a Hispanic congregation.
“I’ll work through those numbers, but I don’t expect there’d be a whole lot of problems,” Funke said about the first proposal.
But Lindaman wasn’t expecting any difficulties.
“I’ve been able to get loans for everything,” he said. “I’ve had a really good month.”
THEN AND NOW
Small Town Bank Failure
Like many rural banks, the Farmers Savings Bank in Haverhill, Iowa failed during the Great Depression. Arthur Rothstein captured what remained in 1939. But what is perhaps more interesting was how Rothstein described the village. He wrote that Haverhill was "a village in decline" and that local farmers would abandon the isolated village. Today the bank building is long gone; in its place is a larger yard for the neighboring house. But the village is hardly in decline. The hum of a nearby corn bin fills the village, a reminder of the strong local agriculture economy. A bank never returned to Haverhill, but a new restaurant, the Haverhill Social Club, opened this spring and reports "better than expected" business. (I will be visiting another small town in Iowa, where the local bank survived the Great Depression and is dealing with the current crisis just fine as well. Watch for that report tomorrow.)
"I registered as a Republican when I turned 18"
--Tara Amann, life-long registered Republican. Lee's Summit, Mo.
"Sadly, a lot of blacks don't take the time to understand what their candidate stands for"
--Eddie Butler, Conservative Evangelical Christian. Overland Park, Kan.