RAY SUAREZ: Welcome to Need to Know. Thanks for joining us. The government has released the latest job figures and the unemployment rate is down from the previous month.
This was the number of jobs created in September. That was lower than the monthly average since the start of 2012. And perhaps no government statistic matters more to folks who live and work along Main Street.
Now that the first presidential debate has come and gone, the candidates are likely to be back on main street soon, or at least talking about it, as they crisscross the nation in search of votes. But what do the candidates really know about life on Main Street? As part of our ongoing series we call “Main Street America,” John Larson recently visited Pueblo Colorado…. A once-thriving steel town that has reinvented itself. Folks there seem to think Washington is broken. And much of their future success depends on the global economy.
MUSIC: The people down on Main Street, are turning out their lights. They’re permanently closing overnight.
SHEILA WOOD: The view from Main Street…it’s scary.
MUSIC: They’re boarding up their buildings.
BRIAN WOOD: …the view from Main Street is uncertain …
MUSIC: They’re taking down their signs…
BRIAN WOOD: Nobody knows what’s gonna happen in the next year, the next five years or ten years.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: when you hear politicians talk about Main Street, they sound as if they’ve personally spent enough time there to understand the struggles of Americans who live on main.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Folks on Wall Street and folks on Main Street have a shot at success.
MITT ROMNEY: I understand where jobs are created. They’re created on Main Streets and streets all over America.
BARBARA ECKHARDT: Well, that’s great. They love Main Street. They love to put that in there and say, “Hey, Main Street, USA” … but tell me a president who’s had his electricity cut off.
Both presidential candidates have recently campaigned in Pueblo , Colorado – but neither set foot on Pueblo’s Main Street or heard the stories you’re about to hear.
SHEILA WOOD: I just try to have faith that we’re gonna stay above water and that we’re gonna be able to– to make it.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: Pueblo is a city of about 160,000 people, with much to be proud of: thriving hospitals, community and state colleges, a beautifully restored riverfront, and picturesque middle class neighborhoods. Yet Pueblo’s identity is forged in steel. Once called the “Pittsburgh of the West,” in the 1920’s, its huge steel mills were owned by the Rockfellers and employed tens of thousands, until the industry crashed in the 1980’s.
We’ve come here because Colorado is a swing state – still very much up for grabs in the presidential election. Although Pueblo usually swings Democratic, this time things could be different. It is suffering the highest unemployment in Colorado, 11 percent – 3 points higher than the rest of the state.
And as we begin, there’s something else you should see – at the south end of Pueblo’s Main Street. A group of statues – celebrating pueblo as the “home of the heroes” – home to four Congressional Medal of Honor winners and referenced by this local songwriter.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: it’s something to keep in mind, as you hear how the people on Pueblo’s Main Street struggle far from the battlefields, to cope with rising medical bills, stagnant wages, unemployment, and a gridlocked government in Washington who many here tell us is out of touch with life on main.
MELODY BABBITT: I just never thought at this stage in my life, almost 50, that it would be so hard to just make ends meet.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: AtT 2123 N. Main, Melody Babbitt is one of millions of Americans unable to keep pace with the sharply rising cost of medical care. Not her father, but her mother. An outreach specialist for the state of Colorado, she helps disabled Americans… find work.
MELODY BABBITT: It’s what I love. It’s what I was born to do.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: although Melody earns more than $40,000 a year, three major abdominal surgeries and complications resulted in thousands of dollars in medical bills that her medical insurance didn’t cover.
MELODY BABBITT: I’m kind of a bit embarrassed to say this. But– I have never been to a pawn shop in my life, and I recently took something to a pawn shop, and– I did that just so I’d have gas money.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: but her medical bills kept growing. A few months ago, $30,000 in debt – she filed for bankruptcy.
MELODY BABBITT: It’s real embarrassing. You know. It’s embarrassing to call your girlfriends and say you can’t go with them to see the movie, Magic Mike, the new hot chick flick that’s out– because you just can’t afford to go, you know.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: As medical costs continue to rise, one in every five Americans now struggle to pay their medical debts, now the number one cause of personal bankruptcies. But here’s the alarming reality – most of those Americans filing for bankruptcy because of medical bills are like melody, they have health insurance, but still cannot cover the costs.
MELODY BABBITT: And you don’t want to tell your girlfriends. You just can’t. You just can’t.
BARBARA ECKHARDT: The surgery saved my life. Insurance saved my life.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: One block from Melody’s at 1930 North Main, Barbara Eckhardt lives with her two sons. She says they’ve never had medical insurance until her new job helped provide it. A checkup and a surgery, saved her life.
BARBARA ECKHARDT: I have insurance. I have the surgery. It’s huge. I could not have done it otherwise, and my heart was giving out
JOHN LARSON [narration]: But Barbara’s family struggles with a new American reality – stagnating wages for working families.
Barbara lives paycheck to paycheck. She earns $28,000 a year working full time at a call center like this one, one of seven call centers in Pueblo which employ thousands of people for $8 to $11 an hour. It’s a job she’s very grateful for.
But last month, she accidentally said something while talking to a client, and her pay was temporarily cut – a huge setback. What did she say to the client? She said, “oh, my heavens.”
BARBARA ECKHARDT: Because of– my comment, “Oh, my heavens,” which was just empathy as far as I was concerned. I was just yeah. My wage went down.
JOHN LARSON: So that’s considered, like, a religious expression?
BARBARA ECKHARDT: It was considered religious.
JOHN LARSON: Which is– considered inappropriate?
BARBARA ECKHARDT: Well, yes.
JOHN LARSON: But that actually cost you a couple bucks an hour?
BARBARA ECKHARDT: Two-fifty.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: According to the most recent census data, the gap between America’s rich and poor is greater than it’s been in almost half a century and it’s growing. Why? Because wages for working Americans in the bottom half have flatlined, rising only 18 percent over 30 years. While, compensation for the top one percent rose 15 times that. The CEOof the company Barbara works for last year took home more than 50 million dollars.
PASTOR BRAD MUNROE: I’m seeing greater stress and anxiety– across the board. Both blue collar, white collar– working families as well as retirees, a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: Reverend Brad Munroe is the pastor of First Presbyterian on the corner of 10th and Main.
PASTOR BRAD MUNROE: We are to be a blessing for the sake of this community. Indeed be a blessing for the sake of the nation.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: He says the rising stress plays out for many in a way no Christian minister can overlook – there’s less love for thy neighbor.
PASTOR BRAD MUNROE: The ability to talk to your neighbor, to listen. No one listens anymore. And– they are repeating– information from the internet that is– is gross, manipulative– harsh, judgmental. And I see the orneriness– that happens. And it’s not always been this way. Four years ago it was a difficult election. Now it’s far worse. And the ability to have respectful dis– discourse has been degraded.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: As we continued up Main Street, we heard more stories of families working full time, living paycheck to paycheck. The couple at 2012 North Main both work full time, one early shift, one late – earning just enough to cover the bills for their newborn. The Latino husband at 1915 main was laid off from his construction job again this year, and at 50 years old is now hoping to go back to community college. And down in the original business district on Main Street, small businesses have suffered.
DAVID HARTKOP: Yeah. The economy is really tough. We’ve seen a lot of people on Main Street go out of business or move off Main Street or switch what they were doing.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: David and Michael Hartkop’s business however, solar roast coffee, at 226 North Main is thriving. Business is up 40 percent over last year. Years ago, the brothers – began trying to roast coffee in Oregon with a solar roaster. They built their first crude solar roaster, Helios one – with their dad’s satellite dish and a motor from a windshield wiper. They kept inventing Helios 3, 4. Their latest – Helios 5 – draws power from solar panels on their roof overlooking main street.
DAVID HARTKOP: Helios 6, we’re gonna incorporate solar concentrators back into the mix, get some of the advantages of directly concentrating the sun.
JOHN LARSON: So, at what point do you stop inventing?
DAVID HARTKOP: When I die.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: Although the brothers are classic American inventors and entrepreneurs, they had help. A $100,000 grant. But what’s different about this grant is that it comes from the people of pueblo voting to raise taxes, on themselves – to help new businesses.
JACK RINK: I can’t think of anybody I know that likes paying more taxes. Yet here’s a community that– has stepped up, time and time again over the last 25 years, and imposed a tax on itself because it understands the value of economic development.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: Jack Rink is the Director of The Pueblo Economic Development Corporation at 301 North Main Street, and he says the half cent sales tax was born in 1984, out of the deep pain of pueblo’s collapsing steel industry.
The mill employed more than 20,000 steelworkers at it’s peak. As one told me, this mill used to paint the town black. But when the bottom fell out in the 1980’s, it fell hard.
FRANK PAPISH: It was a very tough time. I mean– a lot of my friends and some of my family that ended up getting laid off from out there. And this was– this was their livelihood. This is what they did. So it was devastating to ‘em. And it was– it was very devastating to the economy here in Pueblo.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: Frank Papish is a third generation steel worker. Like his grandfather and father before him. He remembers the pain of the lockouts, labor wars, and the mill going bankrupt before it was finally sold to the Russian steel manufacturer –Evraz. It now employs over a thousand union workers, who make steel rails for the railroad, and steel wire… all out of recycled scrap metal. Bottom line – these union jobs, with medical and retirement benefits were all saved by a company from russia.
JOHN LARSON: Back in the ’60s, ’70s, if anybody had told you you were gonna wind up working for the Russians what would you have thought back then?
FRANK PAPISH: No way. I never would have thought it would be in– back then to be– you know, owned for a foreign company. But the Russians have treated us well. They’ve put a lotta money into this plant already. It’s very optimistic for the future. So– I think it’s been a good move for us.
JACK RINK: We also learned our lesson back in the steel mill days of, as a community, we really don’t wanna become dependent on any one industry. Probably not even on any one sector
JOHN LARSON [narration]: Which is why in 2008 the Pueblo Economic Development Corporation used 11 million dollars – tax money – to encourage another foreigner – Vestas – a Danish company. Vestas invested about a billion dollars in Colorado and built the world’s largest windmill tower factory … in pueblo. It hired more than 400 employees, offering good salaries, and full benefits.
BRIAN WOOD WAS HIRED AS A QUALITY SPECIALIST.
BRIAN WOOD: It was as good as it gets in– in the United States. To be able to start a new job– with a hundred percent medical and dental paid by the company and four weeks of vacation accrued every year right from day one– is just unheard of.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: For Wood, the Danish company was an answer to a prayer. He had been laid off at the steel mill, and was excited by the idea of renewable energy.
BRIAN WOOD: Traditionally it’s been petrochemical. And we know that those are limited resources. So, the– you know, where wind is an in– infinite– source of energy and it just makes sense to do that.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: But Wood and other Vestas employees were concerned earlier this year, when Republicans in Congress threatened to end the one billion dollars in tax credits that help keep the wind industry afloat. Wind power was instantly swept into the gridlocked, federal budget debate, and the race for the presidency.
MITT ROMNEY: And as a result while he’s happy with wind and solar, we all like wind and solar, but you can’t drive a car with a windmill on it.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: That’s what he said about wind power. You can’t drive a car with a windmill on it. Now I don’t know if he’s actually tried that, I know he’s had other things on his car.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: Even as the candidates spared over windpower, just the threat by congress to end the credit was enough to freeze the wind industry in its tracks, and force thousands of layoffs nationwide from Texas, Pennsylvania and a dozen other states, to Colorado.
BRIAN WOOD: Well, when I got a phone call from my boss asking to be in his office in five minutes, I kinda my heart jumped. And when I got to his office and saw the plant manager sitting in there, I– I kinda knew at that point.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: Three years after being hired at Vestas, he was let go, losing his benefits and health insurance for his family.
BRIAN WOOD: I think it just shows ya that– nobody’s job is safe anymore.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: Anthony Knopp is the plant manager at Vestas.
ANTHONY KNOPP: It’s frustrating because every energy company receives subsidy.
JOHN LARSON: Oil? Natural gas–
ANTHONY KNOPP: Gas, and– and– coal, and nuclear, everyone. It just so happens though they get publicized because we have a credit that expires, and most of the other credits do not.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: In fact, he’s right –oil, gas and coal companies have received federal subsidies and tax credits for almost a hundred years, and still receive billions more from the federal government than wind, but it is the wind credits that are currently caught in Washington’s budget fights, frustrating thousands here in Colorado.
BRIAN WOOD: It’s– it’s scary. My wife is petrified. And now, you know, what am I gonna do? How am I gonna support my family. Do I have to change careers? And, you know, that’s pretty hard to do at– at my age.
JACK RINK: I can’t tell you how many folks have come up to me and say, “What can we do? You know, how do we– how do we impact this?” And because we’re talking not about our– our local government, not even about the state government, it feels as though we just don’t have that– ability to influence those events.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: That sense – that the lawmakers in Washington appear increasingly deaf to the realities on Main Street – was something we heard from nearly everyone here regardless of political party or ideology. We asked everyone whether they had confidence the federal government could help solve the country’s most pressing issues.
FRANK: No. I don’t. I mean– the State of Colorado has backed us here. And we have a lotta faith in them. The overall government, no I don’t.
BARBARA ECKHARDT: I think they’re so out of touch with what we actually do, who we actually are, and– how people actually live. We live payday to payday. And I used to get so happy if I paid everything. Not I had extra, but if I paid everything.
JOHN LARSON: Obviously you’re a man of faith. But how much faith do you have in our– governmental institutions?
PASTOR BRAD MUNROE: Government is so doggone dysfunctional. I am stunned at their inability to f– for basic communication skills. It is as if they live in a zero-sum world. And if one wins the other loses.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: Pastor Brad Munroe says the growing lack of faith on Main Street is due, in part, to politicians who have lost sight on why they were sent to Washington in the first place.. To govern.
PASTOR BRAD MUNROE: Oh, my goodness. People. You’re not two. You’re adults. Get your act together. I would never tolerate my teenage son behaving this way. And yet all of Washington seems to be behaving this way. Don’t get me started, John.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: Coloradans frustration with government, and who they hold responsible for the dysfunction in Washington could have an impact on election day. Although Obama won Colorado four years ago, there are more independents here now, and the continued sluggish economy worries many. Brian wood, who might be tempted to vote for Obama to help protect the threatened wind credits, will not. Among his the reasons: the immense size of the federal debt.
BRIAN WOOD: It’s not only the tax credit that’s gonna have an affect on the– the success of a company like Vestas, it’s the overall economy of the country that certainly has a big affect. And the direction that we’re goin’ now, the economy is not goin’ in the right direction.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: Remember Melody Babbitt, the state worker who required three surgeries and was swamped by medical debt? As you might imagine, the rising cost of healthcare is at the top of her agenda.
MELODY BABBITT: It’s all the little things. It’s– they’re just– they start popping up, and you’re like, “Oh, shit, I didn’t expect this. It’s another bill. It’s another– you know, expense.”
JOHN LARSON [narration]: In fact, Melody urgently needs a fourth surgery but she says that she simply can’t afford the time off from work let alone the bills that will inevitably pile up in her mailbox.
MELODY BABBITT: I’m procrastinating and postponing the surgery. I will eventually. But I can’t right now. I just can’t afford it.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: And in this economy, it is never one thing. Every person we met on Main suffers from a steep drop in their home values. A result – their net worth is less than it was 4 years ago. Melody’s house has lost value since she bought it… the same for Barbara…Brian and his wife Shiela, a nurse, have spent their lives fixing and re-selling homes. They bought this home, their biggest risk ever, right before the housing market collapsed.
JOHN LARSON: I don’t know how to put this delicately. But your husband is laid off from a job that looked like it was a sure thing. You’re in the process of having to sell your home because you can’t really afford it anymore. You’re losing your health insurance. Did you ever expect at this point of your careers, after working so hard, that it would look like this?
SHEILA WOOD: Never. Never. We have just been such hard workers. It’s scary. But, you know, if you– if you sink into that mode of thinking and that depression and everything, you’re not gonna get past it. Because that’ll eat you up. You need to k– just keep your head high and– and keep telling yourself, “I’m gonna do it.”
JOHN LARSON [narration]: Jack Rink, who’s job it is to bring new jobs to pueblo says families like the ones on main street inspire him to work even harder.
JACK RINK: The lesson we’ve learned is that we can just never rest with the idea of bringin’ in new jobs.
JOHN LARSON [narration]: In fact, the day we left town, he’d helped bring some good news for Pueblo.
ANCHOR: Another company announces its creating jobs
JOHN LARSON [narration]: Another foreign owned company – an Austrian chain manufacturer – announced it will build a new factory in Pueblo, and use the steel from the steel mill. The result: 55 new jobs.
There are more than 10,000 main streets in America, filled with Americans –research shows -who are among the hardest working people in the world, who are increasingly skeptical of their government. Remember those statues we mentioned at the beginning of the story? Dwight Eisenhower once wondered, is there “something in the water out there in Pueblo? All you guys turn out to be heroes.”
And remember the young songwriter? Turns out, she’s Brian and Shiela Wood’s daughter. She often performs downtown, so we asked her to write a song.
And she wrote this – about the strength and resilience on this American Main Street.
MUSIC: This is the home of the heroes. Heroes. This is the home of the heroes.
PASTOR BRAD MUNROE: I think the view from Main Street is difficult but hopeful.
I think it’s difficult because these are tough times. But it is also hopeful because the love of one’s neighbor has not disappeared. You might think that if you’re listening to Washington’s discourse. But it’s alive and well on Main Street.
RAY SUAREZ [narration]: This week online, take part in our weekly poll. The topic: fixing the economy. Let us know what you think and why. Visit pbs.org/need to know.
RAY SUAREZ: That’s it for this edition of Need to Know. On next week’s program: You’ve heard about the fiscal cliff but what is it really and how might it affect you? That’s next week on Need to Know. I’m Ray Suarez, thanks for joining us.
Additional funding for this week’s show was provided by the Schumann Media Center.