My Register Experience

The New Poverty: Bright spots 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 Depression,” this one contains two brighter spots, interviews with the executive director of a young woman’s resource center and with a young woman entrepreneur who could have fallen into the hopeless syndrome of depression due to joblessness, but instead relied on a historic Iowa value: neighborhood (but with a digital twist).

ywrcHeather Soener heads the Young Women’s Resource Center, 705 E. 2nd Street, Des Moines, which helps girls and young women from every demographic.

You can check out the long list of programs and services here.

In our interview, Soener told me that the center does “a lot of prevention programming,” especially for young girls reaching the fifth grade. One of the things impacting their lives and normal development is unemployment. “Families are under great pressure with layoffs now.”

The center also focuses on a Latina group of girls, emphasizing their culture and roots and how some values might differ in the community. (The Latino/a Iowa cultures share a strong work ethic.) In both groups, the specter of unemployment echoes. “You hear things like, ‘My mom worked there for seven years, and now she has been laid off.’”

Layoffs at home and school have harsh side effects on girls, in particular. “They might develop trust issues,” Soener says, “or the ability to form relationships, being more cautious” because of the instability at the places where girls expect to find little or none. “The focus is elsewhere rather than on the children.”

Soener also tells an anecdote that underscores the worries of Carey L. Miller, executive director of the Iowa Food Bank, profiled Tuesday on this blog, about having insufficient resources to serve the hunger needs in the 42-county service area. We’ll include that telling anecdote in our story.

Speaking of which, we will file that on Thursday. Because I have an award-winning photographer in Dennis Chamberlin, I can do narrative journalism, relying on him to showcase our article in slide shows and pictures. That narrative will end with Suzanne Hull, with whom we shared coffee this morning at Smokey Row Coffee, 1910 Cottage Grove Ave, Des Moines.

20091111.015Hull is a remarkable young entrepreneur, the creator of the Web site “Unemployed in Des Moines,” which provides advice and information about getting a job in addition to unemployment news, such as the recent extension of unemployment benefits for the 31,000 Iowans who have run out of benefits since June.

Suzanne, a 1999 Wartburg College graduate in economics and international business, was laid off twice this year and could have fallen into the syndrome associated with the new poverty, believing her work ethic and self-reliance could overcome any difficulty, even one as potentially dire as this economic one. Instead, she joined a business book club, networked within the community and then followed a piece of advice that led to an epiphany and change of attitude: She moved her laptop from the comfortable couch in the basement to the kitchen table, where she did some remarkable work, using Web 2.0 to foster interpersonal communication.

She created her own neighborhood for the unemployed in Des Moines, meeting in the same cafe every other week for informal networking. A lot of good has come out of Hull’s contribution, and others can learn from her example.

Read about that in The Register.


“Untold Stories” of the Iowa Jobless

Posted in Register Week by Michael Bugeja 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).

Back in the newsroom, out in the streets

Posted in Register Week by Michael Bugeja on November 10, 2009

Dennis Chamberlin and I didn’t sleep much last night in anticipation of our first day at The Des Moines Register, which turned out better than we could imagine, not only in discovering that journalism hasn’t changed much since our time (although people’s reaction to street journalists has), but also in seeing reporters and editors putting in extra hours to get out the news across several platforms.

Again, as a former wire service reporter, that’s not news to me. It was like being back in the bureau again.

earlybirdsmall(2)Our day began at 7:45 a.m. as we headed out on Duff Avenue, Ames, spotting a man in a yellow bird costume beckoning us to get an “early bird special” at Jiffy Lube. So naturally, we had to stop an interview Marvin Lewis, 50, originally from Chicago who says he was out early to show members of his “Young Men of Integrity” chapter that the early bird gets the job.

You can read about that national group here.

Lewis, a groundskeeper for a local properties management company, said, “I came to Ames from the inner city, Chicago, and got in so much trouble”—indeed, court records verify that; “but then I learned that it’s all about surrounding yourself with the best people. I never had that before.”

He wants to pass on that experience to youth in our hometown.

About 45 minutes later, we arrived at The Register. Managing Editor Randy Brubaker gave us a tour, temporary press passes and a parking spot. We also got Register coffee mugs, and went straight for the coffee machine, lured by the scent of burnt coffee in a pot that hasn’t been properly washed in a decade.

Then we set out to Gray’s Lake Park. We had immediate luck. We were interviewing an air traffic controller who gave us a great tip about the decline of flights into and out of Des Moines International Airport, in part due to the poor economy. (Indeed, his stats checked out with 137,000 flights in 1998 and steadily declining ones down to 96,000 in 2008 and running well below that figure for the first nine months of this year.)

After the interview, we noticed a woman sitting a few feet behind us on a park bench. We asked if she was unemployed, and she was, a registered nurse who was laid off three weeks ago after going six months from January to June without work. She gave us a great interview so that we had insight into her and others’ situation, and at first allowed us to use her name; but later, she decided she didn’t really want us to. (She says she will read this blog and perhaps reconsider, and we hope that she does.)

Another woman walked past us immediately after, and she was out of work for two years. She also wouldn’t give us her name, but said she walked around the lake every day to give her something to do. “Lots of people do it.”

We hope some of those we interviewed will allow us to use their names, but if not, we’ll quote them anonymously and interview a psychologist who can elaborate on our core question to each person today: Iowa is known for its work ethic, but what happens to Iowans when there is no work?

Then we headed out to some fast food places to see if any college-degree holders were working there. At an empty ice cream parlor, we waited for about 20 minutes before two customers came in. One was retired, but she told us the unemployed in the city could be found at Southridge Mall. Moreover, we’d also find lots of empty stores to document just how bad the economy has become on the southside of the city.

She was right. Dennis will have some spectacular shots of a huge parking lot that at best was 5 percent full at the noon hour.

Almost half the stores, excluding the anchors Target and Younkers, had few, if any, customers.

But here we found the brightest spot of the day. You’ll have to read about that in our enterprise piece. We also visited a pawn shop where a customer hours before had sold his gold teeth because the price of the gilt metal had risen to $1100 an ounce.teeth

The biggest change for us, former street reporters, was how anxious people were when we first approached them for an interview. A few hadn’t experienced that before. Dressed in suit jackets and ties, people assumed we were detectives or evangelists. (We’re sure that Register reporters interview plenty of sources in person, but we’re not sure if they stake out sites as we did in 1970s street reporting fashion, led by intuition optimization rather than the search engine kind.)

Tomorrow I’ve got some research and follow-up interviews to do. Wednesday we’ll be meeting with a networking group, and finish up interviewing and shooting at the lake one more time.

Thursday, we file.

Contact Us: On the prowl for “The New Poverty”

Posted in Register Week by Michael Bugeja on November 7, 2009

Email us at myiowastory@aol.comDennis Chamberlin and I will report to the Register newsroom Monday morning, getting temporary press passes, parking sticker and a work station. Then we will hit the streets, combing the city for “The New Poverty,” in search for Iowans hard-hit by the recession who might never imagined their unemployment or current job situation.

If you live in the Ames-Des Moines area, and have a story to tell, please contact us at

We will be looking for white-collar employees in blue-collar jobs, and the jobless blue-collar workers displaced by them in a zero-sum economy.MONEY023

We will search them out at fast-food franchises, malls, networking breakfasts, Gray’s Lake Park, shopping malls and all the lonely places from shelters to soup kitchens.

We will investigate the return of Depression-era crimes in counterfeit bills and fake gold coins and document the desperation at “cash for gold” pawn shops and money stores.

We will end up at places we never imagined talking to people we never foresaw, led by the instinctual proboscis, or nose for news, rather than by Google maps.

Moreover, we’re mindful that Thanksgiving is a few weeks away; but Chamberlin and I see no silver lining in this recession, as Gov. Chet Culver has ordered a 10 percent across-the-board cut to state agencies on top of last year’s 15 percent cut, with hundreds of employees yet to be furloughed or fired.
So do not anticipate from us many “stories of hope” in an otherwise Dickinsonian time with the plague of H1N1 not only infecting residents before the dreaded Plains winter, but whose “swine flu” nickname has devasted the pork-producing industry on whose revenue the state also depends.

Rather, we will try to capture the unique irony of a city and state known for an unflailing work ethic when little work is to be found.

And if we find any silver lining, it just may be in how former white-collar Iowans have rediscovered their servant neighbors after years now of ignoring them while chatting on cells phones in the check-out lanes at Wal-mart, McDonald’s and Wells Fargo, realizing there is an underbelly of disenfranchised somehow overlooked in our pursuit of the upwardly T-mobile good life.

And maybe, just maybe, we’ll help people lose the shame of such plight (because there is none in events beyond our control) and re-embrace the pioneer tenets that made Iowa one of the friendliest, most resilient places in the nation: how much we care about each other.