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Struggling Iowans Hold Out Hope -- and Votes

Many Democrats are undecided about whom to back in the Jan. 19 caucus, but their plea to the candidates is clear: Fix the economy.

October 19, 2003|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

WEST BURLINGTON, Iowa — Teresa Scheitlan's vote is up for grabs -- for anyone who can understand why she's so mad about her toilet.

Scheitlan styles hair at the Cut Ups salon in this southeast Iowa town of 7,200. Her husband delivers milk. No matter how many hours they work, they never seem to get ahead. When their toilet broke, it took them weeks to scrape up $115 for the repair bill.

If she thought any of the presidential hopefuls understood how frustrating, embarrassing and infuriating that felt, that candidate would likely get her vote.

"Every single politician out there should be forced to spend one week in a real person's shoes, living paycheck to paycheck, not knowing, if something breaks, how you're going to find the money to fix it," said Scheitlan, 42.

As Democratic candidates swarm Iowa in anticipation of the pivotal presidential caucus, they're getting an earful about how tough it is to support a family in a stagnant economy. The Jan. 19 contest gives Iowans an early and important voice in determining the Democratic nominee -- and voters like Scheitlan make the most of it, sharing their concerns with all who seek their support.

A few prominent candidates have made a strategic decision to focus on other early contests; retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut have not visited Iowa much. But former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt and Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry are pouring resources into the state and scheduling countless trips to small-town diners.

Wherever they go, the candidates are met with an insistent, anxious plea: Fix the economy. Now.

"I ate better under Clinton," Scheitlan said. "All I care about is how they're going to improve my life."

Most every issue in the campaign is linked to that central concern. When voters talk about Iraq, they ask why we're spending so much money building a foreign nation's economy when our own needs so much help. When they talk about health care, they ask why they're working more hours than ever before, yet cannot afford insurance.

"Iraq is costing us billions of dollars, when we have all these people at home who are homeless, unemployed and don't have health care," said Beverly Schier, 49, a registered nurse. "I can't see why we still have troops there when our children don't get the health care they need."

Iowa's jobless rate is just 4.6%, considerably lower than the national average. "But that's very misleading," said David Swenson, an economist at Iowa State University.

In rural Iowa, especially, most of the jobs are in the low-wage service or food-processing sectors. As it becomes tougher for farmers to turn a profit, their wives, teenage children and even their elderly parents are applying for jobs as clerks or meatpackers or hospital orderlies.

"More people are working per family, and more are working more than one job just to sustain household income," Swenson said. "Everyone's just working their hearts out."

Many here clearly feel that they are falling behind.

"I've been in business for 10 years, and this is the worst year I've ever had," said Joni Gillispie, 47, who owns a gift shop in nearby Burlington. "We struggle every day, but President Bush doesn't see it."

Iowa's economy does have some notable bright spots. Million-dollar homes, unheard of in most farm states, ring the waterfronts of the "Great Lakes" region in northwest Iowa. RV manufacturer Winnebago Industries of Forest City has expanded four times in the last four years, adding 446 jobs carrying average salaries of $12.75 an hour plus benefits.

Iowa's biggest city, Des Moines, is booming. A hub for the insurance and mortgage industries, the state capital (population 200,000) is home to about 60 corporate headquarters -- and was recently named "Hippest City in the USA" by Fast Company magazine.

The western half of Iowa, however, is suffering, as small towns wither. To find jobs, workers have to drive an hour to the Wal-Mart in the county seat; the mom-and-pop stores on hundreds of red-brick Main Streets have long since been boarded shut.

In an unsettling transition that's been years in coming, most Iowans can no longer make a living off the land. Consolidation in the agricultural industry has created bigger and bigger farms. Family farmers cannot compete with corporate agribusiness unless they keep buying more land and more expensive equipment.

About 90% of Iowa's land is farmed, but that land is concentrated in the hands of ever fewer farmers. The number of farmers in the state has been declining since 1935, and the trend has accelerated in recent decades. Across Iowa, roughly 1,000 farmers call it quits each year, leaving barely 1% of the population tied to the land.

The state's top exports are still tractors and pork, but since the farm crisis of the 1980s, many towns have pushed to diversify by wooing small to midsize factories. That strategy worked for a while. But the national manufacturing slump of the last few years has hit hard.

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