Over the weekend, I visited an Italian festival in Scranton, PA, where the crowd, mostly older and white, had gathered in the town square to hear music and eat cannolis. But when I brought up politics, especially Medicare and Social Security, the mood got dark. People worried about making ends meet. They were not much interested in Vouchercare—the Medicare fix advocated by the GOP. But they seemed mostly disillusioned with the Democrats, too. “I would like someone as president who is a patriot and dedicated to the people. I feel like a subject in a kingdom,” one woman said. “You know a kingdom with royalty and the subjects.”
This is another in CJR’s ongoing series of CJR Town Halls—conversations with citizens about the issues they are following in the press, and the second in several Town Halls focused on Medicare. We hope journalists everywhere will get out and talk to ordinary people and hear what they have to say about Medicare, Social Security, and other pocketbook issues that will help decide this upcoming presidential election.
Fifty-seven-year old Paul Noreika has three years to go until he retires from the railroad, with 40 years of service. He worked his way up the ranks with New Jersey Transit—from trackman to machine operator to foreman. He lives north of Scranton in rural Pennsylvania and commutes 100 miles each way, every day, to his job. He hopes he has bought his last car, a Honda Civic that gets 40 miles to the gallon. Still, rising gasoline prices are a concern. “They blame it on the weather,” he said, skeptically.
Noreika will have a good pension from the Railway Retirement System, but he worried that “they would like to get their hands on the railway pension.” “They passed something that took money out of it,” he told me. The conversation turned to Medicare, and the second I mentioned Paul Ryan and his voucher plan, Noreika said, “Don’t mess with it.” We talked a bit more about how such a plan would work. “He’s going to take care of the rich and eliminate the middle class.” Without overtime, he earns a median income—around $50,000. Who do you trust more to take care of your financial concerns, I asked. “I know what I have now. I like what I have now. I will vote for Obama.”
Phyllis Rieger was munching an Italian sandwich when I stopped to chat. At 61, she has another year to become be eligible for a state pension, earned as a special education teacher in New Jersey public schools. Rieger was eager to tell me about Medicare and Social Security. She said she reads a lot of newspapers—The New York Times, the New York Post, the New York Daily News, and the Newark Star-Ledger—and often reads them online. “I hear Social Security is going bankrupt,” she said. “That upsets me because I have put my time in and will have to depend on it when I retire.”
Rieger formerly worked in financial services in New York City and contributed to Social Security through those jobs. She didn’t know how large a benefit she would get because the Social Security Administration no longer sends out yearly benefit statements. The government makes a computer tool available if people want to calculate their own benefits. “I read online that this was supposed to save a lot of money,” she said. “But a lot of people don’t know how to use the computer and a lot of disabled people can’t get out to go to a library to use one.”
What do you know about Paul Ryan’s plan, I asked? “He wants to cut Medicare,” she said. She found it puzzling, though, that “he didn’t mention Medicare cuts in his Republican convention speech. He brings his own mother to show he cares about you.” That didn’t sit well with her. Still, she found Ryan’s “youth and energy appealing” and said a voucher plan was also appealing. But Rieger is 90 percent sure she will not vote for the Romney-Ryan ticket. Although she is a Democrat, Rieger says she votes for the best candidate. “But any more, it comes down to the lesser of two evils. Romney doesn’t represent the common man,” she believes.
What does she like about Obama? “He has a lot of good ideas and four years isn’t enough time to implement them. He more likely understands the average citizen. He comes from a more working man’s background.”