My Register Experience

“Untold Stories” of the Iowa Jobless

Posted in Register Week by Proxiblog on November 10, 2009

Dennis Chamberlin and I spent Monday in the streets, tracking the new poverty from Gray’s Lake Park, local fast-food restaurants, a near-empty southside mall and then to a pawn shop, with interviews today that I thought would add substance to our journey. Instead, our narrative on the new poverty may have taken an ominous turn based on the theme that has guided us all along: If Iowans are known for their work ethic, what happens to them when there is no work?

That’s the “untold story,” meant literally, in that today we learned that some former prosperous Iowans–jobless for months and even years on end–eventually stop talking about their plight out of shame, give up searching for work because of that feeling and then grow depressed, draining their savings and then lacking money for therapy and insurance for psychiatric medication.

I have set up an interview with Dr. Douglas Steenblock, an Ames psychiatrist and president-elect of the Iowa Psychiatric Society, to address the syndrome. Not all jobless Iowans endure those symptoms, of course, as another character trait of Iowans is self-reliance; but you can see how that trait grinds against the strong work ethic, making some feel hopeless on the false belief that they should have been able to surmount any difficulty.

Only this difficulty is epic for some families, as we are learning.

fooodbankCase in point: I also am interviewing and collecting data from Carey L. Miller, executive director of the Iowa Food Bank, who told me this morning that people at the pantries using the services for the first time are undergoing terrific stress, with some workless guests apologizing because they have been laid off and have children to feed. She has some startling stats to share about the depth of this new poverty, concerning a long-term need for food. Here’s a snippet of our interview:

“The partner pantries reports indicate that they are serving 12,464 families per month in our 42 county service area. This is an increase of 1,495 families per month over last year. This has to be some kind of record. I have been associated with the Food Bank for 20 years. I can’t imagine the need has been any greater or remember a time when I felt quite so concerned about us having enough resources to meet demand.”

Worse, Iowa’s jobless rate also is near record highs, with more to come as the state honors Gov. Chet Culver’s mandate to slash budgets by 10 percent. That will add hundreds to the furloughed and fired ranks.

But that’s not the end of bad news. Iowa’s work force is seasonal, especially in farming, manufacturing and construction. We are now entering the slowest time for new jobs, November through February.

To be sure, this is one of the worst recessions here since the Great Depression. And crimes that occurred then, such as counterfeiting, are recurring again. Today I revisited that topic in an interview with John Gutsmiedl, resident agent in charge, at the Omaha Office of the U.S. Secret Service. The Register has done recent stories about paper counterfeit dollars, such as this report. Counterfeit notes also were found recently at Polk County Bank, 5601 Merle Hay Road, Johnston.

With gold rising to more than $1,100 an ounce, Iowans also are being duped by fake replica brass coins, for which they paid hundreds of dollars, only to be informed of the scams.

I’ll end the post with a journalism example of the kind of serendipity that can occur when reporters interview sources at the scene. I did that over my lunch hour, just as I used to do enterprise pieces for United Press International in the 1970s during my weekends off. (Yes, I still have that zeal, and so do many of our students and professors at the Greenlee School.)

At Christopher’s Fine Jewelry and Rare Coins, 3427 Merle Hay Road, I waited for numismatist and counterfeit expert Ed Armstrong to return from lunch. A older man was waiting, too, with four large gold-appearing “liberty head” coins and a silver eagle-looking proof. He wanted to cash them in to get back a decent return on his hard-earned investment. Before Armstrong arrived, his assistant looked at them and said each coin was brass with gold plate and worth “a quarter each.” The man thought he meant $250. “No,” the assistant said. “Twenty-five cents.”

Armstrong entered the store at that moment, verifying the worth of the fake gold. IMG_1024-1

I introduced myself as working this week for The Register. “I could use those coins for my story,” I remarked. “How much shall I pay you?”

The older gentleman seemed ashamed. “Here,” he said, giving me the coins. “You can have them for nothing because that is what they are worth.”

Today, Chamberlin and I visit an unemployment networking group. Maybe their upbeat organization can help others find a way to cope (not to mention find a job).

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3 Responses

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  1. […] in an otherwise dim story Posted in Register Week by Michael Bugeja on November 11, 2009 If Tuesday’s post was dim, discussing bleak statistics about the scope of what some are calling, “The Second […]

  2. Bill Kunerth said, on November 12, 2009 at 5:59 am

    I replied to another piece in thie series but am not sure the message got thorugh. Will
    repeat it and perhaps more persons will read it.

    More reporters should be doing what Michael and Dennis are: “shoe leather,
    in-your-face journalism” that has impact and which readers appreciate. In the
    past such reporting was par for the course for responsible newspapers.
    Sure, budgets are tight but a part of the problem, I’m sure is on an over-
    reliance on computerized reporting, which encourages a bit of laziness
    on the part of many reporters and their editors. And, the product suffers.
    Statistics, factual data are essential but stories like the “new poverty”
    must have human faces to achieve identity with readers.

    Keep pounding the pavement, Michael and Dennis!

  3. […] You can read about that encounter in a prior post. […]


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