The word on the street: insecure

Listening to voters in Omaha’s Old Market

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.”

Are the candidates addressing her concerns? “I met Obama four years ago when he was in Iowa,” where she used to live, she said adding: “I think he’s trying for the middle class and the lower class.” She didn’t care much for Romney. “I used to be a Mormon, for a short time,” Brown said, “and when you are a member of the church, there is not much separation of church and state.”


Thirty-five-year-old Tracy Knox was sitting on a bench underneath a tree in the Old Market, waiting for the Saturday farmer’s market to open. Her hair was wrapped in a bandana, and she was to begin her first day selling in the market for her employer, the Great Harvest Bread Company, which she described as a locally owned chain that makes products with all natural ingredients and honey instead of high fructose corn syrup. Working at the bakery in customer service was a new job for Knox. She started there a month ago and earns about $8 an hour. Knox said that was considerably less than she earned previously as a telemarketer in the cable business. Part of her responsibilities in that job was collecting bills, she said, and she didn’t like that at all. She’s a single mother, and the hours made it difficult for her to spend time with her three sons, ages 15, 12, and 10.

“I know people make choices, and you can’t raise children on $8 an hour,” she said. “But it gives me the quality of life, the ability to go back to school, and be a mom.” Knox continued: “I’m not middle class. I grew up middle class but I can’t raise my children as middle class because of the lack of opportunities.”

Her predicament fed her beliefs about the election and the candidates. “I don’t think the candidates ever actually speak to us,” she said. “Unfortunately, America has become—I don’t want to say it—a class system. If you’re below a certain income line, they blow you off.”

Knox said she did get some child support and had a good family network in Omaha that would make it possible for her to return to school in the fall. She was hoping that would open the door to more opportunities. “I’m neither a Democrat or a Republican,” she said. “Honestly it’s the lesser of two evils.” What don’t you like about Obama, I asked. “It’s something I can’t pinpoint,” Knox answered. She said if there were “a really strong Republican out there,” she would vote for him or her. As for Romney, she said, “he’s very arrogant and has more money than I’ll have in my life. He doesn’t know how it is to eat eggs for three weeks because that’s all you can afford.”


Lindsey Westervelt, 30, likes her job managing the Overland Sheepskin Co., which sells a variety of attractive clothing and accessories made from sheep hides. She had worked at the store for six and a half years, and last year she became the manager. She told me it was a great company to work for, with loyal employees. Business is good. Omaha is home to big companies like Conagra, Gallup, Kiewit, Mutual of Omaha, and they supply lots of customers. When Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway has its annual meeting, many stockholders come here to buy, she told me.

Still, when I asked if the candidates were addressing her as a voter, the first thing she brought up was healthcare. That was really bothering her. Westervelt explained that her company had recently increased deductibles for its workers. Instead of coverage with a $5000 deductible, her family will now have to satisfy a deductible of $10,000 before the policy pays. “It’s incredibly scary,” she said. “It’s awful. But it’s better than not having insurance,” she said.

The company still provides good dental and life insurance, she added, but had to make the change in healthcare to be able to keep the coverage. “Health care needs to be more affordable,” she said. She also thought there was a possibility they would have no insurance, “depending on what the government does.” What did she mean?

“Obamacare is making an impact on insurance policies,” she explained. “He’s driving the price up and insurance companies are panicking to be able to keep out of the government’s hands. I worry it might turn into socialist medicine that takes away from patient care.” Westervelt believed that another type of healthcare system would “lose the specialization we have in the states.” She had once broken her back, when she fell off a horse while fox hunting, and said she knew the value of specialists. We talked some about the overtreatment that occurs in the US. “Right now we have the right to say no to overtreatment, like physical therapy,” she said. What should Obama do with healthcare? “I don’t have an answer, but it should remain in private hands,” she said.

We got around to the election. Westervelt said she is a Republican these days, having changed her affiliation a few years ago, but she did not know whom she would vote for. She hoped that a third-party candidate might appear. Westervelt said she wouldn’t vote for Obama unless he came up with some different ideas for healthcare and the wars. She was troubled by “all the money he’s throwing away. As far as the wars, she said, “it’s time to pull out.”


Carl Burrows had come across the Missouri River from nearby Iowa to have a drink at his favorite bar in the Old Market.* There is only one bar in his town, Carter Lake, he told me, and “It’s a dive.” Burrows, who is 67, worked as a technician for the phone company and took early retirement, but works part time on a contract with his old employer. He said for now he was OK financially.

Are the candidates speaking to him? “Not really,” he replied. “The Republicans are the worst. There is no cooperation in their party. The way things are, Republicans are just awful. I just don’t want Romney.”

Still, though Burrows said he was a Democrat, he is still not sure he will vote for Obama. He doesn’t really know why. Burrows does have some sympathy for the president, though. “Everything he has tried to do gets shot down. I personally don’t doubt him. I do think he’d do fine, if they gave him a chance.”


I wandered into Aromas Coffeehouse and saw a man with gray hair working at his laptop. I told him I was doing man-on-the-street interviews with ordinary people. He told me he was not an ordinary person but was a defeated politician who had just lost the Democratic primary race for the Senate to former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey. Steve Lustgarten, 60, said he had jumped into the race three months ago with no expectation he would win. He had returned to Omaha from Los Angeles, where he had been in the film distribution business, and decided to try politics. The experience? In a word, he said, “sordid.” “Nothing about Bob Kerrey sits well with me,” he said. But Kerrey had name recognition, Lustgarten said, and voter turnout in the primary was low.

Lustgarten had a lot to say about politics and the election and I was eager to hear a candidate’s point of view. He told me the major newspaper in the state, the Omaha World-Herald, “would not admit I was running. They wouldn’t acknowledge anyone was running against Kerrey. Some of the TV stations were more helpful,” but he had a dim view of some reporters. He told me about one young TV reporter who interviewed him did not understand why there was a primary election. He said to Lustgarten, “’I thought the election was in November, why are we having it now?’”

“People are completely disconnected. I ran into aggressive apathy. It was sort of like ‘I don’t care,’” he said. One woman he met didn’t know what the Democratic Party was. “Their lives are constrained and they don’t have a serious news source any more,” Lustgarten said. “A lot of them watch Fox and get their news from Facebook. Their basic attitude about Social Security and Medicare is that if it ain’t broke, don’t mess with it. The younger people will have to deal with it.”

I asked the former candidate the same question I had been asking others. Were the presidential candidates speaking to their concerns? “That would be stupid” strategy, Lustgarten shot back. “They are trying to persuade only eight percent of the swing state voters and skew their messages to bring them in.” As a result, he said said, the candidates shout platitudes rather than alienate one group of voters or another. “There’s no reason to discuss other issues,” he said. “The special interests control the dialogue.”

Lustgarten said he was disappointed with Obama. “I don’t like GITMO, the predatory drones. It seems like Bush 2.0 to me. I’m disappointed with his foreign policy.” Nevertheless, Lustgarten said he would probably vote for him.

What’s really bothering voters? “They are very angry,” Lustgarten said, and “They believe that if you throw out the people you are unhappy with, someone else will come in and change things. But it never happens. Their frustration becomes anger. They don’t vote as an active way of expressing their frustrations. If they do vote, it’s like they sold out.”

Correction: In the section about Carl Burrows, he did not have to cross the Missouri to get to Omaha. His hometown of Carter Lake, IA, is on the same side of the river. CJR regrets the error.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , , , ,