Americans Feel Impact of Shaky Economy, Reflect on Race Relations

March 20, 2008 at 6:15 PM EDT
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In recent weeks, economic turmoil and the role of race in politics have emerged as top national issues. In the second part of the NewsHour's Big Picture discussion, a group of citizens share their views on the economy and reflect on U.S. race relations.

JIM LEHRER: Now, picking up from where we left off last night, the second part of our Big Picture discussion on Iraq, the economy, and race. Judy Woodruff is in charge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Since November, the NewsHour has visited six states around the country to hear what issues are resonating with American voters during the presidential election season.

We brought 10 of those voters to our Washington, D.C., studios to continue that conversation.

Roberta Berthold traveled from California, where she’s a mortgage loan officer in Los Angeles and a Democrat.

Lori Staehling is a real estate agent in San Diego. She’s a Republican.

From Colorado, Mark Harris is a seed farmer in Grand Junction and an independent who leans Democratic.

And Christy Rodriguez, a Republican, is a home educator from Greeley, Colorado.

Mark McLain came to us from Arkansas. He’s an independent who leans Republican. And last year, he lost his job at a Whirlpool plant in Fort Smith.

John Maycroft was on our panel in New Jersey. He considers himself an independent and voted in the state’s Democratic primary. He’s a graduate student at Rutgers University.

Sherine el-Abd, from Clifton, New Jersey, is a defense contractor and a Republican.

Terra Cole traveled from Minnesota. She’s an independent who participated in her state’s Democratic caucus. She works for Hennepin County.

From Nevada, Henry Lujan is a Republican and an Iraq war veteran. He’s a code enforcement officer for the city of Las Vegas.

And Verlinda Johnson, she works for an Internet service provider and is the treasurer of the Nevada PTA. She’s a Democrat.

The first part of our conversation focused on the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq. We then turned to the recent uncertainty in the economy.

How is this economic downturn that we are in affecting you, Sherine El-Abd? You live in New Jersey, defense contractor. Is it touching your life?

SHERINE EL-ABD: Up until a few days ago, no. But I have a son that works for Bear Stearns, so I’m directly impacted with a lot of his retirement money investors. And that used to be one of the most conservative investment, houses. So…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Will he be able to keep his job?

SHERINE EL-ABD: He doesn’t know. You know, it’s unpredictable, and not knowing is a very troubling thing. And when it hits close to home, you really feel the pain always a lot more. Had you asked me that last week, I would have said, you know, I read about it, I’m aware of it, I know. I have compassion, but it’s a lot more painful when you’re directly impacted by it.

Impact on housing market

Roberta Berthold
California Democrat
A lot of fear is what I'm seeing. And it's definitely changed within the last probably 30 to 60 days with what's going on in the economy. People are concerned of their job stability.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Roberta Berthold, you may be right in the middle of it. You're in Los Angeles. You work in mortgage banking. You're a mortgage loan officer. What are you seeing?

ROBERTA BERTHOLD, California Democrat: A lot of fear is what I'm seeing. And it's definitely changed within the last probably 30 to 60 days with what's going on in the economy. People are concerned of their job stability.

I work with a lot of teachers. And even with the job stability with teachers, that's one thing. "I'll go in. I'll become a teacher. I don't have to worry about my job, get my tenure." But they're worried. They are worried of the mass layoffs that are coming in. They're worried about their 401(k). Did I make the right choice by putting my money over here? You know, every time they hear what's going on with the stock market.

A lot of clients were all set up to go ahead and purchase, you know, a really great type of loan, you know, where they have excellent credit and a down payment. They've decided to wait a little bit, because they're concerned about, "Am I going to be able to pay my mortgage in a couple of months, because am I going to have a job?"

And that's a big change. And I do see a lot of fear out there about what's going on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lori Staehling, you are in San Diego, work in real estate. What are you seeing?

LORI STAEHLING, California Republican: Well, there is that fear. I think it's important for us to remember that, whatever the time is, it doesn't stay. Good times, bad times, they don't last forever.

And I think the government is doing some good things right now. So we have one crisis of a type of financing that's gone away, and we've had some median price drops in values of homes, but we have new things that are being done. And I think there's hope, also.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So that's making a difference, these moves in Washington?

LORI STAEHLING: It's making a big difference. Making a big difference. And we're seeing activity, as far as people going out and getting pre-qualified for loans, looking at homes and buying, really picking up in significant numbers.

And so, with that, with house pricing, which is so much of the economy right now, and home sales, it's a matter of supply and demand. If people have confidence, they will take action.

The interest rate dropped just the other day. We had over a 400-point increase in the stock market. Clearly, if people think things are going to get better, they take positive action and things do actually get better. So...

Concerns over rising gas prices

Christy Rodriguez
Colorado Republican
My problem is when you start having to pay taxes for your employees and all of these crazy fees ... We're crazy to think that the government is going to bail us out and we're going to go unscathed. It's going to cost us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark McLain, what about from your perspective? You're from Arkansas. As we saw, I mean, the plant you worked for, Whirlpool, things changed. You lost that job. You're now training to be an electrician. What does it look like to you? What does it feel like?

MARK MCLAIN, Arkansas Independent: Well, the Fed cut the interest rate three-quarters of a point yesterday, I believe. And that's a Band-Aid on an open wound, in my opinion.

It's good if you have an adjustable rate mortgage. If you've got a lot of credit card debt, your bill is going to come down. That's awesome.

But it's not going to help you in the long haul with gas, and milk, and bread, and diapers, because everything that you touch, it got here on a truck. And with fuel costs through the roof, especially diesel, the price of crude oil is well over $100 dollars a barrel now, and no end in sight, everything you touch comes to you on a truck and that truck is powered by diesel.

Those prices are going up. And it doesn't matter what the Fed does to the interest rate. Clothes, food, all those commodities, they're going to be unchanged by that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Terra Cole, how are you feeling about all this in Minneapolis?

TERRA COLE, Minnesota Independent: Minneapolis, and particularly the neighborhood that I live in, felt a lot of these economic issues so much earlier than anyone else. It's a predominantly black community, predominantly working-class community.

And when you start to see houses that the neighborhood organization that I'm board chair for, we put hard-earned money into building over 100 brand-new houses in our neighborhood, making sure that people had good loans, down payment loans to get into these brand-new homes.

And in the process of the refinance boom, these people lost their houses, not just the new ones, the old ones, too. And there are those who knew they were getting into a bad loan and were trying to make a buck really quick and there's others who were lied to.

And a lot of people that I see are those who were lied to, who were tricked, got to the table at the last minute, it was a fixed rate, and all of a sudden it's an ARM. I'm being told one thing consistently, "I'm having to sign something else," the preying on our elderly.

In a community of people that worked very hard to have homeownership, to offer that opportunity to their children, and now had it taken away through unscrupulous methods -- the tools weren't bad. These tools are not bad, but that it's affecting the community when you have a small neighborhood with only 6,000 housing units, half of them are gone, half of the people living in them are gone, and now people are torching their homes for the insurance money.


TERRA COLE: Literally. We've had about at least five since January.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Christy Rodriguez, how is the economy affecting you and your family?

CHRISTY RODRIGUEZ, Colorado Republican: My husband has a small remodeling business. And when I say small, I mean small. It's a one-man operation. We don't want to have to pay taxes. We don't want to have to pay workman's comp. We don't want to have to pay for someone else's insurance and government fees.

And we are affected directly in that there are some services that our company offers to realtors. It's kind of -- our service would be, if Lori -- is that your name?


CHRISTY RODRIGUEZ: She buys the house, and she sells it to him, she can say, "Well, I'm going to buy four hours from Kings House Builders. They'll go in for four hours and do trim work, you know, fix your cabinets, put your door on, and things like that." So those kinds of things have tapered off.

But now that people aren't buying as many new houses, they're more inclined to do some remodeling and things like that. So eventually it evens out.

My problem is when you start having to pay taxes for your employees and all of these crazy fees and things that just -- they're just moneymakers for the government. When you have to start paying all of those fees for these crazy things, you don't have the money to put the food and the diapers and the milk and all those things on your table.

And when we -- we're crazy to think that the government is going to bail us out and we're going to go unscathed. It's going to cost us.

Struggling with job instability

Mark Harris
Colorado Independent
The economy is very much on our mind. The downturn today hasn't affected us directly, but we are certainly going to be affected dramatically by economic events, both in the United States and abroad.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Maycroft, you're a student.

JOHN MAYCROFT, New Jersey Independent: Yep, graduating in two months.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You're graduating, but you've got to think about a job.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And how's that looking?

JOHN MAYCROFT: Well, I don't have a job yet. It's a pretty nerve-wracking time. And, you know, one of the frustrating things to me is that, you know, now that I'm approaching the end of my 19th year of education, and I've worked really hard to be this sort of flexible, creative person that the new economy is supposed to be based around, and yet, if I'm going to function in this economy, I need health care.

It's very hard to be a flexible person, contribute in the type of economy we have, where people are going to be moving from project to project. Every time you move, you have to find new health care, probably have a waiting period, be -- you know, have to risk going into the hospital, which happened to me last July, and not be covered.

And so the long-term problem with the economy is that people are getting stuck in jobs because they need to keep their health care. And we have an education system that isn't creating people who are innovative enough and ready to move around in this sort of economy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Verlinda Johnson, what is the economy feeling -- when you hear this conversation about too much regulation, about -- you know what's going on in the housing world. You know what's going on with the price of gasoline.

VERLINDA JOHNSON, Nevada Democrat: Well, there's a couple of issues. Everything is actually coming together. When we talk about who's paying for all the stuff, who's actually paying for the war? The American people. That's one thing.

Housing, I do believe that we let -- and when I mean we, I mean the American people -- let the housing industry get way out of proportion. Now that the error has been made, everybody is trying to come back in and trying to confine things, which they should have been doing in the first place.

I have friends that my husband worked with, colleagues, the bank came knocking on their door. The bank now owns the home. They had two weeks to get out. And this is not the first time I've heard that. This is probably about the fourth or fifth time I've heard that in my neighborhood in Las Vegas.

It's like, what do you mean you have two weeks to get out? OK, so we had to help friends move in two weeks' time. You've got two kids, you've got a dog, kind of hard to find some place to live.

Now your fear is you're renting from someone, you're renting another house, and then you're paying the bill, they're not paying their rent, they're not paying the bank, they're not paying anyone.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Henry Lujan, you're also in Las Vegas. In fact, you work for the city of Las Vegas.

HENRY LUJAN, Nevada Republican: We actually just laid off 31 inspectors, first time in over 20 years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Say that again, I'm sorry?

HENRY LUJAN: We've actually laid off 31 inspectors, first time in over two decades because of the economy. People aren't just spending money like they used to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tourists, you're talking...

HENRY LUJAN: Yes, tourists and our own. We're the ones that ruined all this. We're the ones that drove the market to go out of control. And we're the cause of this.


HENRY LUJAN: The American people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The American people.

HENRY LUJAN: We did all this, so now we have to fix it. But I know a lot of people will try to hang on that it was the war that did it, which I highly doubt. You know, and we did this.

So when I -- in Vegas, when I came back from combat, I couldn't buy a house in my own city because the first 100 people on that list were from California. I'm like, "Wait a minute, I can't buy a house in my own city because there's a California investor who wants to make some change?" That's fine. Make your paper. Do what you got to do, but don't stop me from buying a house.


MARK HARRIS, Colorado Independent: Well, in agriculture, we've had pretty heady times recently, even in the face of a declining overall economy. Many commodity prices have gone up, pulled largely up by the price of oil.

But, also, we do business in 12 western states. We put diesel under everything we do. So seeing diesel go from $2.25 to $4.19 this week has taken -- it's changed our budget, let's put it that way. Fertilizer costs, natural gas...

JUDY WOODRUFF: You say you're in seed farming?

MARK HARRIS: We're in the seed business. And we live on the western slope of Colorado. We're in the midst of a natural gas boom there. But fertilizer costs to our customers and to us are 40 percent to 50 percent higher than they were a year ago. In some cases, you can remember when they were half as much as they are now.

So the economy is very much on our mind. The downturn today hasn't affected us directly, but we are certainly going to be affected dramatically by economic events, both in the United States and abroad.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just finally, a number of you have touched on this. How much more do you look to the government to deal with this or should the government stay out? Roberta?

ROBERTA BERTHOLD: We don't have a funding problem. We have a spending problem. We have the money there because of the taxes to be able to assist Americans. It is just being spent in a completely different area that I don't feel is necessary, and that being the Iraq war.

You know, we can help out more Americans. And I don't believe in, you know, just throwing money to people. I believe in helping people. People who have lost their jobs, let's help them to create jobs, things like that.

You know, so I don't think that we have an issue of, oh, there's not enough money. It's just it's being spent on the wrong area.

MARK MCLAIN: The money is there. It should be there, even though we're at war. War is good for our economy. I'm not naive enough to think that it's not. It's good for our economy. If we weren't at war, I think we would be in a total recession/depression. And there is nothing good about that.

Tackling issue of race in U.S.

Verlinda Johnson
Nevada Democrat
We, as a country, we need to discuss racism as a whole, I mean, have an open dialogue, say what you need to say, what your stereotypes are, what you thought you heard about a certain race of people, and get it out in the open.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just like to spend a few minutes right now, very few, on the question of race in America. It came up in a speech this week by Senator Barack Obama, presidential candidate. He was, in a way, in a sense, required to defend some comments that his former minister had made that were considered controversial.

And it was an attempt, I think, to put race as one issue before the American people in this presidential campaign. How important is race to us as a society? Have we made progress? Do we have a lot of progress yet to be made? What are some of your thoughts on this?


LORI STAEHLING: Well, I think it's unfortunate that he -- it has become such an issue. He spoke about it so much. In my life, it's not an issue. And whether -- what color someone's skin is or where they were born, it makes not one bit of difference to me.

But I'm realistic enough to understand that it does make a difference to some people and maybe to too many people. And so maybe it's an issue that has to be dealt with.

I think it's very unfortunate that we would think of him as a candidate based on his race. He should be only judged based on his ability as a human being to run the country or not.


TERRA COLE: Well, it's unfortunate and, while it is a travesty, we have someone who is in the political limelight that is out there and really sort of bringing to the surface all of those very -- I wouldn't say it subtly, but very -- on a very, very, very minute level, what myself, my Latino friends, my Asian friends, my Native American friends, and Muslim friends face every single day.

We're constantly questioned as to, "Why are you here? Yes, you're articulate. Yes, you have the degree, yes, yes, yes. But, really, why are you here?" It's this questioning of -- people looking at me on sight and assuming things.

They assume, because I went to a certain high school, that I do a certain thing, that I live in a certain neighborhood. "Oh, well, you're so smart. Why do you live in that particular area?"

It's those racialized questions that -- I'm not saying that people are racist, but they're racialized questions coming from a place that our society has really created this perception of who is what, what black represents, what Latino represents, what Asian represents. We've created these stereotypes and we've absorbed them.

JOHN MAYCROFT: I thought it was a great speech. And for what it's worth -- we all sat watching the speech together -- and when that speech was over, I felt more comfortable being more honest in conversation about these things in talking with you and with other people in the room.

I felt more comfortable talking about those things than I would have two days ago. And that's quite an achievement.

VERLINDA JOHNSON: I'm thinking I'm kind of glad it came out. The timing is not that great, but nothing ever is.

We, as a country, we need to discuss racism as a whole, I mean, have an open dialogue, say what you need to say, what your stereotypes are, what you thought you heard about a certain race of people, and get it out in the open.

That way, everybody is playing on the same playing field. And I'm hoping we, as a country -- all right, you got it out there, maybe we need continual discussion. And I do understand that people in their 50s think differently than I do in my 40s, and my kids think differently than I do, based on what they have seen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Anybody else on...

HENRY LUJAN: I just wanted to say that -- you know what? We're going to be out here and try to be as politically correct as we can, but I think we'll always have closet racism. So it's going to happen no matter what. That's just the way that we are, and that's just the way people are in general.

What happened with the minister is that, unfortunately, there was a phone or a camera or a fly in there. But I'm sure everybody has had their topics and their discussions about other races at home that nobody else knows. Those are closet racists.

So my thing is, is that it's an issue. And when it does come out, hopefully this will snowball into something bigger that everybody can come out and say, "You know, why do you do it this way? Why don't" -- you know, things like that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you think it's healthy to have this discussion or...

HENRY LUJAN: I think it is. Once you have this discussion, though, I think people are going to go and leave with their own mindset of what it is. And, you know, is it going to abolish it? No, it's just the way it is.

MARK MCLAIN: I think Barack Obama is a politician and he gave the speech because he thought he needed to. And I believe that he covered the things in the speech that he thought he needed to cover to further garner votes.

Do I think he's a racist? I don't know. Do I think he was speaking from the heart? I don't know. But I do know, just like he said, he's going to put his best foot forward. He's going to put his best face out there, because he is a candidate for the president of the United States. He did what he had to do for that campaign.

ROBERTA BERTHOLD: I think what Barack did is a very good victory for all of America because it says, "Let's talk about it. Let's talk about it."

I'm Hispanic. A lot of my family is black. And when we get together, the conversation is different in our home around the kitchen table than what it is out in the public. And so you know what? Let's all get together.

You know, there is a lot of racism, whether it's within your own race, against another race, and it doesn't matter which race you are. It is there. And so let's discuss it. You know, he's showing his leadership skills by saying, "Hey, it's out there. Let's discuss it."

SHERINE EL-ABD: Judy, I was waiting for him. He gave a wonderful speech. But since he said, "Let's talk about it," I was waiting for him to say, "You know, people are accusing me of being Muslim because my father was Muslim. So even if I was, what the heck?" I didn't hear that, and I was disappointed. And that's un-American, I felt.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You felt it was un-American of him not to acknowledge that?

SHERINE EL-ABD: Yes, yes, yes. And to say, "Let's talk about it," but because it's fashionably correct now to be anti-Muslim, he avoided that.

MARK HARRIS: He did something, however, and mentioned something near and dear to the hearts of all us farmers is that he did talk about the coffee shop.

And one of the things that he mentioned that I think was -- that certainly resonated with me was the fact that, at the coffee shop, you do overlook some of the differences between you and your friends sometimes. You may find some things about each other's political views abhorrent, but you're still friends and you're still neighbors.

We're going to have differences. But if we can talk about them at the coffee shop in civil discussion, we can perhaps make some headway.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. That's, I think, a good note to end on. I want to thank all of you to coming from the cities you call home to Washington to have this conversation. We appreciate it. Thank you all, each and every one of you. We appreciate it.