Interest rates are dropping. The stock market is going wild. The economy, the White House tells us, has turned the corner.
You'd never know it in the Midwest heartland. Times are rough here. Drive across America. You can see it from the interstate highways.
In Youngstown, Ohio, the parking lot at General Motors' Lordstown plant, which once employed 11,000, is almost empty. The steel mill smokestakes in Gary, Ind., are puffing at half speed. The big, modern Chyrsler plant in Belvidere, Ill., looks like it's fallen asleep for the summer.
Turn on the car radio near Pittsburgh. You hear the soulful voice of Claire Sachnoss, a local entertainer, singing "The Ballad of the American Steelworker," as moving an account of layoffs ("10,000 here, 25,000 there/Then they go layoff some more") and hardtimes ("Right now it seems/the American Dream/for many will never come true") as ever written.
"There's still hotdogs and baseball," she sings. "There's still apple pie/But the good times are fading away."
Even the hitchhikers have changed. The young hippy-looking wanderers with guitars strapped across their back have been joined by a different breed of traveler, hardened men in their 40s, out of work and on the road, vacant and desperate looks on their faces.
These are, of course, just impressions, broad brush strokes on a summer canvas. Impressions from the interstate at that.
For a moment, leave I-94, which runs northwest from Minneapolis toward the Dakota plains. You will find Osakis (pronounced o-SAY-kiss), a place without a single stoplight, nestled around a lake two miles away.
Most of the last 17 summers I have returned here, to the small farming and resort town where I grew up, drawn by my family, the lure of Minnesota lakes, and a romanticism with my past that I don't quite understand. Businesses, people, and local scandals have come and gone during those years. Most of the gracious old elms have died, victims of Dutch Elm disease; I have buried my father and married off my sister.
Reality, understandably, always seems easier for me to find here than in Washington, 1,300 miles to the east.
The reality of this summer is gloomy here. I have never seen it quite so bad. There are empty storefronts downtown. Home construction has virtually stopped. Resort business is lousy. People don't have money to spend on vacations. Local businesses feel it in their cash registers.
At the First National Bank, the president, my friend Newman Olson, says a Federal Land Bank official has just told him it is foreclosing on two area farms, a rarity since the days of the Great Depression. A couple other farmers, caught in a vicious circle of high interest rates and low farm prices, will try to sell out this fall.
Olson, whose family has owned the bank most of this century, is a sensitive and decent man. The sales weigh heavy on him. He worries about the price the land will bring. A few years ago farmland here went at premium prices. People would buy almost anything. The market has now disappeared.
The fields, ironically, are lush across the Midwest. Corn is 8-feet high; wheat a beautiful golden brown. Farmers are expecting bumper crops. This would, under normal circumstances, be a banner year.
But corn and wheat prices are so low and interest rates so high that farmers complain they will lose money on every bushel they sell. Nine years ago when my brother-in-law, who farms in the fertile Red River Valley 120 miles to the northwest, sold his corn crop he got $3.25 a bushel; his wheat sold for $5.25 a bushel. Today corn is down to $1.75 a bushel; wheat $3.25. He says his cost of production has increased 2 1/2 times.
The Osakis area is a stable one, where few people get rich and fewer go hungry. There is no depression here. Government price supports have kept dairy prices, which most farmers here depend on, high. An unusually high percentage of the population is made up of older people, living on Social Security and pensions. Some businesses, like drug stores, are having good years.
What seems to have happened in mid-America is that a redefinition of hardtimes has taken place. There are no Depression-like breadlines. People feel pinched, but not desperate.
They are confronted with confusing economic signs in their states, and the nation. Unemployment on Minnesota's once booming Iron Range is at 40 percent, for example. The state government has just gone through its worst financial crisis in decades. Yet unemployment in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, which is dominated by hi-tech industries, is a relatively low 6 percent.
The new hard times look almost prosperous by old standards. But they are bad by recent standards. The only way I can quantify this is to relate the experiences of a few of the people I'm closest to here. None of them are particulary hard- pressed, but they see ominous signs around them.
My uncle's cement construction firm in Sioux Falls, S.D., for example, has employed about 100 men in recent years. This year he has 40 men working for him. Normally, they pour basements for 30 or 40 homes a week. They've barely done that many all this year, he says.
The nursing home, where my sister works, employed two social workers one year ago; this year she is the only one. Her husband, who is handicapped, has been looking for a job for months. My mother-in-law, who is retired, enjoyed going back to work as a summer fill-in in previous years. The county government, where she worked, now has no money for summer replacements. The workforce in the North Dakota's once-booming oil fields where my cousin works is down by one-fifth from a year ago.
One final observation.
When he was a candidate, Ronald Reagan asked people if they were better off in 1980 than four years before. I was driving through Pittsburgh two weeks ago when the same Reagan appealed for support for the tax bill and his economic program in a radio and television address.
On radio station KDKA, the president's speech interrupted an on-the- street fund-raising program, conducted by two popular talk show hosts, Roy Fox and John Cigna. They were trying to help unemployed members of Steelworkers Local Union 272.
They raised $5,000. It was used to buy food for steelworker families.