Last week I found myself in Omaha, at the city’s Old Market, hoping to visit with some of the locals about the upcoming election for another CJR Town Hall. As usual, my sample was not scientific, but it did show what some voters are thinking. Four of the people I interviewed were young adults who seemed deeply insecure about their economic futures. As I found in my recent visit to a Walmart in Pennsylvania, these Nebraska people were not sold so far on either Mitt Romney or the president.
At the Antiques Annex, 21-year-old Mike Kronberger was shining up some blue bowling ball cases to sell. He had migrated from northern Wisconsin to Nebraska so he could attend the Creative Center, a commercial arts college from which he would graduate in a couple of days, with a degree in graphics design. The day I talked to him he was selling old jewelry and other objects in an effort to make ends meet. Near the front of his mind was the burden of his student loan—$75,000. “All the graduates are facing heavy, heavy student loans that are unrealistic to pay back,” he said. You have to take out loans to be a functioning member of society, he said, but he quickly added that the idea that if you don’t go to college you won’t be successful is “dissipating somewhat.” “I don’t know that I would recommend college to anyone graduating high school,” he said. “Taking the risk of going to school and investing in education doesn’t guarantee your success.”
Kronberg said he couldn’t afford cable. In fact, he doesn’t have a TV set. Michelle Obama sent him a Facebook solicitation, asking for a $3 contribution to the president’s campaign, but he didn’t contribute. “My next concern is to get $5 for a money order to pay the electric bill,” he told me.
Where did he stand on the candidates? “I’m definitely not voting for Romney,” he said. “He is seriously disconnected from the working class.” Kronberg said he didn’t necessarily agree with Obama either, but argued that the president was not afraid to take a stand on issues like gay rights. Were the candidates speaking to him? “Not necessarily,” he said. “They aren’t speaking to my class, my age group.”
He told me he watched some of the Republican debates online and sees a lot of political ads on social media sites. “The election seems like a big avalanche of opinions. I don’t want to get buried under them.”
Kronberg said he did not have health insurance and knew the risks of being uninsured. He didn’t know what the health reform law might do for him. “I have to figure out where my next meal is coming from or how to put gas in the car,” he said. “I don’t have time to take three hours out of a day to figure out the law.” He does know about the consequences of being uninsured, though. His family had declared medical bankruptcy because his mother, who has Crohn’s Disease, did not have insurance.
While Mike and I talked, Heather Brown and her fiancé came by. Brown—an LPN who works three jobs to pay her bills—asked the cost of a print of Goofy, the Disney character, that her fiancé had just bought for her. He had gone to a cash machine to get the money, and she worried it cost too much. It was $15. Brown collects Goofy figurines because, she says, “I like to make people laugh.”
Besides working as a nurse, she takes care of old people, getting those jobs through private agencies, and also works at a Home Depot. She is 38, and does not seem optimistic about her future. She is saddled with $35,000 of college loans, which helped her earn a degree in psychology.
She has no health insurance. She lost it when she got divorced and cannot afford to buy her own. “I don’t make enough to be financially stable. I live from paycheck to paycheck,” she told me. I asked Brown what she knew about the Affordable Care Act, which would probably provide some subsidies to help pay for coverage. “Very little,” she replied, although she thought the subsidies would be helpful. “There’s just so much crap being spoken from both sides, it’s hard to know what’s the truth. You just stop listening.”