Farmers come to Hugh Miner in increasing numbers these days. Even in the best of times the experience is difficult for Miner and his clients. Now it becomes especially painful.
"Each one that sits there is doing something that's completely contrary to his nature," Miner says. "And I went to a family friend of ours who is a psychiatrist to see if there would be some manner of my approach that would alleviate the situation somewhat, to put them at ease so we could at least get the job of getting information from them more readily and be able to proceed."
The business is bankruptcy. The farmers who walk into Miner's law office are part of a disturbing new phenomenon here in this northwest corner of Missouri. They are part of America's new poor, people forced by circumstances beyond their control to give up their homes and land--or stand in unemployment lines or wait for a handout of surplus government cheese, as others here are doing. Their ranks are growing. So are their anxieties. That, too, is alien to their nature. They never thought they would find themselves in such straits.
"They literally have no other place to go than to contemplate suicide on the one hand or bankruptcy on the other," Miner says. "The economic vise has caught them. They have their farm land mortgaged for more than it's worth in a descending market. Interest has compounded, making their costs astronomical. They have not been able to recuperate and make any profit from the sale of their crops. It's not even been a break-even process for many of them. Plus they've had a succession of disasters, either drought or extra wetness or something of that kind. In some instances they've had the place to which they sold their grain go bankrupt. Many of them, not all, are in real hard times."
That isn't to suggest that St. Joseph resembles a desolate Great Depression scene of shuttered factories, soup lines and executives selling apples on the corner.
"I see people out playing ball," said Larry Koch, a city councilman in St. Joseph. "Like last night, every team had a case of beer, all of them are driving cars, their kids are well fed. You go out and eat dinner, and every place is doing a thriving business. The better stores are doing a good business. It's not visible to the people I see."
Famine is not sweeping across the prairies. Grass is not growing on Main Street. St. Joe's people are friendly, its church congregations exude a sense of well-being and confidence, its life proceeds with what appears to be its normal rhythms.
But hard times, the worst since the Depression, have descended on this quiet city of 76,000 in the center of the American agribusiness area. Even if some haven't yet noticed, practically the whole town has been affected. St. Joseph is in trouble, and the trouble could soon be much worse.
The recession strikes with special severity at a time when many of the community's institutions--schools, police, fire, library, and all other city services and voluntary agencies--face reduced budgets and the prospect of new layoffs.
St. Joseph is not some bellwether city that enables pollsters to divine the national mood. Nor do its demographics perfectly match the national averages. It is an old and conservative city, with an older population. Only a smattering of blacks and Hispanics live within its 44 square miles of rolling hills, park land and single-family dwellings. But conditions here mirror those elsewhere, and it is fair to assume that St. Joe is no isolated case. If the president's programs are going to work, they should be doing so in St. Joseph.
Ronald Reagan's revolution can be read here, and so can many of the premises upon which its policies rest: the ability and willingness of local communities to provide essential services for those really in need; the way in which volunteerism can help fill the gap between government and private citizens; the relationship between Washington and state and local officials; the even more complicated one between president and people.
This St. Joseph story emerged from a week of interviewing here by four Washington Post reporters, and from a poll of 609 residents conducted before our arrival. What we found raises doubts about some of the assumptions behind the Reagan revolution, and offers fresh evidence of changing American attitudes at a difficult moment for the country.
People are hurting here. Not the welfare dollies and queens of political lore and rhetoric, either. Despite great efforts, voluntarism is not able to meet ever-growing needs. As one official says, "There's only so much you can do with the loaves and the fishes." Local government finds itself paying the price of its past failures to raise adequate revenues and facing demands to do more than it can.
Neither President Reagan nor members of Congress can take comfort in the attitudes of the citizens of St. Joseph.
We found Reagan to be in a precarious political position. Even his staunchest supporters question his inflexibility on tax cuts and defense increases, for instance. There exists a clear, strong undercurrent of resentment about his favoring the wealthy. As for Congress, the almost universal response is one of contempt. Again and again people referred scornfully to the $75-a-day tax write-off Congress gave itself to defray Washington living expenses.
Through all our conversations ran a recurring theme: anxiety. As Steve Nikes, a city councilman, expressed it, "We've got to turn around this feeling that we're in a nose dive."
People here tend to be apprehensive about the future. They talk nervously about a new depression, or a new war to prevent it. Above all there is a sense of time running out. Economic conditions must improve in the next six or nine months, they will say; the alternatives are too grim to consider.
This anxiety is uncharacteristic of this area and these people. They have deep roots in this region, and long memories. To understand why today's problems cut so sharply through the fabric of this community some history is in order:
When Bob Ford shot Mr. Howard in a house here a century ago this spring, putting "Jesse James" in his grave and himself into American legend, a local booster had a bright idea. Let the town slogan be "St. Joseph, the city that started the Pony Express and stopped Jesse James."
It didn't take, but pride in past achievement hangs heavy in St. Joseph. So does the local booster spirit of old, and with good reason. Much history was made here along the Missouri River, where the first covered wagon trains set out on the overland route to the Pacific. Much wealth was amassed, as the great stone mansions here testify.
Today, unemployment has been running at the highest level in the state. The housing industry has come to a near halt. Merchants are struggling to stay in business. Payrolls have been cut. Companies have instituted shorter work weeks.
Last winter, Whitaker Cable Corp. closed (200 jobs lost). On March 29, the local newspaper offered free job-wanted ads. The response took up a full page. In June, Wire Rope Corp. of America instituted a 32-hour week for 450 employes and will soon do the same for 400 more. The building trades have no hope for relief before next spring, and in the last 18 months the Teamster's local has lost close to 40 percent of its membership.
"You want to know about St. Joe today," says David Bradley, proprietor of the city's morning and evening papers, The Gazette and The News-Press. "Our unemployment's been running between 12.5 and 9.5 percent. It's tough on the street. It's tough on small merchants. There's nobody on Main Street making a quarter anywhere." When one firm posted 70 job openings recently, more than 1,000 showed up to apply.
To those with older memories, that long line stretching around the block recalled scenes of the soup-kitchen crowds that began to form each afternoon at 4 o'clock in St. Joseph in the depths of the Depression. Tales of bankruptcies and foreclosures circulate throughout town. Most troubling of all for the future, as Hugh Miner's clients know all too well, is that for the first time in many people's lifetimes the value of farmland has been declining, as much as 30 percent in the last year.
As one businessman put it, agriculture is the "life's blood" of the city, and its problems now ripple through the local economy. Trouble there means trouble everywhere.
In this report, we do not presume to paint any definitive portrait of this community. Nor is St. Joseph the perfect prototype of Everycity, U.S.A. But long ago, in the 1890s, a local historian, in words that hold relevance today, wrote of this city:
"It is to be remembered that in cities like St. Joseph, the real American life can be found." CHAPTER I: The New Poor
Hard times in St. Joseph naturally affect the poor, often dramatically, but what distinguishes these hard times is the way they have swept thousands of ordinary working people into dire economic straits.
Leechia Jones, 35, a mental-health worker in the city, put it concisely. The poorest people "have sort of got used to losing, and this recession is just another loss," she said.
"I guess what bothers me is the increasing population of new poor. They're people who are very reluctant to seek any help. It has been devastating for them. Their egos are a very important factor."
The new poor in St. Joseph are people who never expected to be in trouble; they always worked and always expected to work. No "safety net" can satisfy them, because handouts are the last thing they are looking for. All that these people want is jobs.
The new poor are the people thrown out of work when an uneven economy becomes a depressed economy. The situation President Reagan inherited in January, 1981 (which he described as "the worst economic mess since the Great Depression"), was imperfect but tolerable for St. Joseph; the current situation is barely tolerable, and could become disastrous soon.
The difference between January, 1981, and now is not just statistical. In fact, today's unemployment rate of about 10 1/2 percent in the city is just a percentage point higher than it was then. The problem now is the cumulative impact of long months of high interest rates and unemployment, plus the general belief in St. Joe that there is not going to be a significant upturn in the local economy any time soon. The problem now is an accumulating sense of exhaustion and frustration.
Thousands of jobs have been lost in St. Joe factories, many of which have closed. Other workers are on reduced schedules, which means tight family budgets. Few in St. Joseph are poor in the sense of being hungry, ill-clothed or unprotected from the elements. They're just out of money.
"This has got to turn around soon," said Peggy Tolbert, who has worked for 31 years in the Missouri Division of Employment Security in St. Joe, where the unemployment benefits are given out. "Real people are hurting. We can't go on like this much longer."
Yesterday was a date of symbolic and practical significance in the life of St. Joseph's new poor. Yesterday, special, "extended" unemployment benefits--usually $105 a week--expired for 1,249 people who had been collecting them from the St. Joseph unemployment office. These are people who have exhausted both the standard six months of unemployment checks and an extra 13 weeks provided by Congress last year.
Some people in this group have working spouses who will tide them over; others do not. Many are running out of options. One is Gene Sypolt, 32, a heavy-construction machinery operator who has been out of work since May, 1981. He and his wife are running a second-hand store ("What we're selling is what people need, because the economy is in bad shape"), but it doesn't make any profits. Asked what he would do when he lost his $105 a week, Sypolt replied:
"That's a good question--one we've been discussing. And I don't have the answer."
There are no government programs for families like the Sypolts, because father, mother and children live together. If Robin Harris, 33, a divorced mother of two and a union carpenter, still had a husband in her house, she too would have been out of luck when her unemployment benefits ran out yesterday. But because she is a single mother, Harris can get help from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, and she knows it. The prospect appalls and angers her.
What will she do now? "Welfare, I suppose, which is horrible," she said grimly. She had already found out that she and her children would be eligible for $278 a month in welfare and $160 in food stamps, a combination that adds up to almost as much as her unemployment check. All it will cost her to get these benefits is her self-esteem.
Walter Gray, an angry man of 30, already has paid that price. His wife gets $199 a month in welfare benefits for herself and a 10-year-old child whose father was her previous husband. Gray has been out of work since August, and he was eligible for a partial unemployment benefit of just $38 a week, which ran out yesterday.
The Grays live with a classic anomaly of the welfare rules. If the 10-year-old were his child, the family would get no welfare. Because the child was fathered by another man, they get the $199 a month and also food stamps. But their own 6-year-old is not eligible for welfare or stamps, simply because both his parents live with him.
"The welfare guy told my wife, you know, if you kick your husband out, you can get more money," Gray said with a sneer. (Living alone with two children, his wife would get $248 a month under Missouri regulations, a $49-per-month raise.) "A friend of mine, his wife did kick him out, and now that he's out, they're chasing him for child support!" Gray continued, looking astonished. "Matter of fact, they're threatening to send him to jail for it."
The phenomenon of the new poor has produced this curiosity: applications for basic welfare and food stamps in St. Joseph have not risen since Reagan entered the White House. Just last month, in fact, they fell. But the caseloads and the budgets of private charities and church groups have doubled in the last year.
"A lot of people who are eligible just never come in to apply," according to Roy Deskins, who supervises the local food-stamp program. Ruth Goodson, who has worked in the city's welfare office for 30 years, said it was a matter of pride. Leechia Jones, the mental health counselor, observed that the drawback to food stamps is the fact that they have to be used "where people can see you."
Pride is a brittle thing. It can bring out the best in people, but can plunge them into despair. "I've been an electrician ever since I was 16," said Larry Bode, 30, a native of St. Joe. "That's what I want to do, be an electrician. I don't feel like pumping gas or something like that. I've got too much education . . . . "
Larry Bode once made $14.77 an hour, but he hasn't been able to find regular work since August. He has three young children and owns a house, which ties him to St. Joe when he knows he might do better elsewhere. "Luckily, I've got some parents who are pretty helpful. If it wasn't for that I'd have lost everything I own." CHAPTER II: The Cuts
President Reagan has recalled fondly a time when "before we began this big government drive, religion was the principal dispenser of charity in the United States." Just last month, Reagan pronounced his drive to bring back voluntarism a success: "We are running into just waves of enthusiasm and volunteers."
And the president has said he will preserve a "safety net" to catch the truly needy Americans who fall out of the economic mainstream.
In St. Joseph one can test that wave of enthusiasm, and also the effectiveness of that safety net. Here, both the volunteers who are working hard to help their community and the poorest people who are supposed to benefit from the safety net say things aren't going the way the president said they should.
"We're back to begging food from the churches, the way we did 15 years ago before the food-stamp program ," said Jeanne Kanady, a social worker in the St. Joseph branch of the state's Family Services Office. "We get reports of families who don't have food for their children. They call that neglect."
At the churches and other charities where Jeanne Kanady is begging food, the providers say they, too, are strapped. For example:
* From January through May, Catholic Charities aided 309 people who needed emergency assistance for food, clothing, transportation or money to pay their rent or utility bills. That compares with 153 the group aided in all of 1981.
* The Salvation Army's clientele has grown 60 percent, the increase consisting mostly of the "newly unemployed" seeking food and shelter, according to Maj. David Chase, the director. "We're out of money, but we're still providing services," Chase said. "Have you ever heard of deficit financing?"
* Local welfare agencies supported by taxpayers also are overextended. The Social Welfare Board, a city- and county-funded medical clinic for the poor, served 612 patients in May, compared with 341 patients in May, 1981, but may receive less money from the city next year.
"I think the economy has forced the volunteer sector to kick in, and that's probably good for the country," said Paul Roder, executive director of Catholic Charities. "But we can only be there for that initial crisis period. When it comes to food, utilities, housing--and I'll throw in medical care--nobody can do that but the government. When it comes to utility assistance and rent assistance, we get swamped. That tells me the government has to be there."
And in St. Joe, as everywhere, the government is less there than it used to be. No local official can cite a precise figure, but St. Joseph and its citizens have lost hundreds of thousands of federal dollars because of budget cuts Congress voted last year.
Social workers and welfare recipients agreed that the changes affecting the most people have come in rules governing Social Security disability; new AFDC regulations counting the income earned by stepparents, and changes cutting from AFDC rolls most working persons, 18- and 19-year-olds, and the families of unemployed fathers.
Social workers in St. Joseph report that, although perhaps 20 percent of the women receiving basic welfare were kicked off the rolls by last fall's new regulations, most of them have now gotten back on. All they had to do was quit their low-paying jobs and throw their husbands out of the house, which many did.
For many families dropped from welfare, the biggest loss was their Medicaid cards. Loah Stollard of the Social Welfare Board said that 550 of her new cases over the last year were people who had just lost their Medicaid benefits because of regulation changes.
One such person is Leona Downing, 33. Her 5-year-old son was dropped from the Social Security program for disabled children. David is Downing's third epileptic and retarded child. The other two still get their monthly checks of $264.70 each. But last October the Social Security office--under pressure from Washington to reduce caseloads--informed her that David's epilepsy was then "controlled with medication," and that "no significant restrictions have been placed on him, and he is attending school." Therefore, his check would stop.
In fact, according to records gathered by the legal aid office in St. Joseph, David has an IQ of 54. And he regularily suffers seizures at the special institution for the handicapped he attends.
"I feel blessed with my children," Downing said. "When you think about it, children like mine who also have brain damage, it's real easy to make them happy."
But not without money, and Downing, whose husband recently left her, has no income besides these benefit checks. "It seems like I have been wronged," she said.
Dozens of St. Joseph's residents have lost their Social Security disability checks. Thousands of others have been affected by cutbacks in local programs forced by the Reagan budget. For example, senior citizens have lost some in-home meal and housekeeping assistance; one of three local day-care centers has been closed; school lunches went up a dime, and elderly citizens eating at Inter-Serve's nutrition centers now must pay $1.25 for what used to be a free lunch. Medicaid and Medicare recipients now have to pay for many more drugs, including painkillers for the arthritis that afflicts many elderly. Medicaid and Medicare used to pay for those drugs.
In many cases, these victims are turning to local charities for help. Here in St. Joseph the volunteer tradition runs deep. "In our community, we do have a network of private agencies, and people who will open their homes," said Ronald Sitzman, coordinator of the United Way's emergency aid committee. "But it's not enough."
Sitzman's committee has to ration cash assistance among an excess of impoverished agencies and distressed families. Agencies are still able to find people who will volunteer their time. But money is another matter.
According to The Post's poll of St. Joseph's residents, more than a third are giving less to charity than they did a year or two ago because of tight domestic budgets. And, according to Sitzman, local businesses are also contributing less: "Now they don't need to contribute with all their other tax breaks," he said. CHAPTER III: The City
The sturdy temples of local government in St. Joseph--the county courthouse and the city hall--symbolize the end point of Ronald Reagan's revolution: an idealized local government of citizen-politicians responding efficiently to the needs of the people.
But inside the century-old buildings in St. Joseph, another picture emerges, one of negligent leaders and citizens who have turned to Washington for basic assistance and of frustrated public officials without the resources to perform basic city services despite public demands for more.
The negligence has taken many forms, but none more revealing than the fact that the state Department of Natural Resources imposed an open burning ban on St. Joseph because of air pollution in 1979, and a later study found the principal cause of pollution to be dust stirred up by automobiles on the city's poorly maintained streets.
The city imposed a 1-cent sales tax three years ago, but the basic tax levy is virtually unchanged since the late 1940s. And it is low. For example, Rev. Charles Bayer of the First Christian Church lives in a five-bedroom house on an acre of land in a good neighborhood and pays $300 a year in real-estate taxes.
Next month, the city may be forced to reduce operating funds for virtually every department to give city workers a small raise and avoid laying off up to 50 of them.
This is not a new crisis at city hall. The city has used its low tax rate to attract new industries which over the years have added thousands of jobs to the local economy. But in doing so it has pinched the public sector. The streets are only one example. A huge billboard erected outside town says, "Welcome to St. Joseph. You are being protected by one of the lowest paid police departments in the Midwest."
In times of stress, the city turned to Washington, and today the dependency is almost an addiction that will become more critical if Reagan has more success in cutting the federal budget. Roughly 20 percent of the city's $30 million budget next year will come from Washington.
Revenue-sharing money, once reserved almost exclusively for capital expenditures, now provides operating revenues for the parks, the library, the golf course, the convention center and the ice arena. Only $135,000 of an estimated $1.55 million next year will be used for capital expenses.
When the fire department needed new breathing equipment, the city used community development funds, on the theory that the equipment would be used in low-income areas. When a large city park deteriorated from lack of maintenance, the city found a grant in Washington to refurbish it.
"The federal monies might have spoiled us," said City Councilman LeRoy Maxwell. "People were reluctant to tax themselves. You can lay part of the blame at the feet of the politicians. They were unwilling to go for those taxes."
Parallels with Washington are striking. Faced with the need for additional revenues to avoid deeper cuts, the City Council recently undertook a search for nickels and dimes in the columns of their computer printouts, much the way Congress has turned toward marginal tax changes to increase federal revenues. What they found was hardly enough to fill a sandbag to hold back the river of requests pouring in this year.
Four years ago a Republican outsider won a surprise victory as mayor and, facing a council of nine Democrats, began a systematic attempt to wean the city off federal grants and in other ways shake up local government. It was his denial that the city had polluted air that prompted the state to ban open burning.
The old mayor is gone, but the constant bickering between him and the council so irritated the public that they voted in a new, city-manager form of government designed to bring professionalism to city hall. Council members know they are paying for the public's loss of confidence in their leadership.
Whatever the sentiment toward city government, it is held in high regard compared with county government, which will spend about one-third of its $7 million budget this year restoring the courthouse. The county judges found it necessary to forgo the county's customary $5,000 contribution to Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, which provides much more than that in services to St. Joseph children. In a time of strain on the social services network in the city, there is contempt in St. Joseph for the county's action.
"I just didn't know where we were going to get the money," said Tom Mann III, one of the three judges who run the county. "We laid off people. We have to keep the county running."
The state's most significant contribution to local government in recent years is the Hancock Amendment, Missouri's version of California's Proposition 13. It forbids the city from raising taxes without a vote. In addition, a series of 10 sales-tax exemptions approved in the last decade has weakened the tax base of state government.
What this means is that as Washington relinquishes its power and responsibilities local government here is unwilling to assume them. "I don't know if the safety net can be put in place overnight, because it does involve local governments realizing that they have a responsibility to their own citizens," said Mary Brock of the United Way board.
Conditions in St. Joseph have left public officials frustrated. "Reagan's dealing with down the road and a municipal official is dealing with today," said City Councilman Steve Nikes. "A police chief says, 'We don't have gasoline for our police cars.' What do we do? We can't say, 'Chief, in three years, you'll have all the gas you need.' What's he going to do today . . . ? It keeps getting reduced down, from the big headlines in your paper until it gets down to us, and we end up talking to a person across a table. There's nobody left in the pecking order for us to have them call . . . . We're in a room without any doors."
Proposals for higher taxes now echo through St. Joseph. Missouri Treasurer Mel Carnahan told the St. Joseph Rotary Club recently, "We have been on a tax-cutting binge for a long time. We have an outdated revenue system and we are not dealing with it." Local politicians quietly agree.
But local officials also say they believe it will be difficult to persuade voters to raise taxes until there is a more serious decline in services--if then. Which leads city Finance Director Mary Parker to a pessimistic conclusion:
"When the funding burden shifts to local governments, a lot of programs are going to go down the tubes." CHAPTER IV: The President
By almost any statistical measure, the people of St. Joseph say they believe the president's program has hurt the country and their city. And yet, by a wide margin, they say Reagan's policies will be good for them in the long run.
Beneath that conflict between short-term pessimism and long-term hope lies a clue to the durability of the Reagan mandate. What seems clear in St. Joseph is that many Americans are eager to keep faith in their president and his programs because giving up on yet another president would mean relinquishing their pride in America and their faith in the future.
In 1980, in the city of St. Joseph, a Democratic stronghold, Reagan got 47 percent of the vote to President Carter's 49 percent. Today, according to The Washington Post Poll of St. Joseph, President Reagan enjoys virtually that same level of support. But 55 percent of those interviewed say his economic program is hurting the country and 45 percent say it has hurt their city. Just 11 percent think Reagan has helped St. Joseph.
The local congressman, Republican Thomas E. Coleman, has begun to distance himself from the president. Last month, Reagan personally asked Coleman to oppose a House budget amendment to raise Medicare spending by $4.8 billion and make a similar cut in defense spending. Coleman balked, and spoke on the House floor in favor of more money for Medicare.
"In a time of high unemployment and very, very difficult times, we need to show as much empathy and concern as possible," he said later.
The Washington Post Poll found that Reagan has left St. Joseph deeply polarized: men vs. women, whites vs. blacks, the same pattern that has shown up in opinion polls across the country. But no difference is more politically damaging than the disparity between rich and poor.
The anger at Reagan among the enlarging chorus of non-rich is often personal: that he is too old, out of touch, an actor, a figurehead. The phrases come coursing through their conversations with sarcasm and cynicism. And nothing has damaged the president more than his extravagant life style.
"Why the hell does he think he has to go on a vacation every time he turns around?" asks Nadine Williams, business agent for one of the electrical workers union locals in St. Joseph. "He seems to think every month he needs a tour to relax him. He wanted the job? Let him get in there and stay there and do it."
In 1980, Reagan won the presidency in part with an appeal to disaffected, working-class Democrats, and it was the hope of his party that these voters might provide the foundation for a political realignment in the United States. In St. Joseph, that foundation has eroded, for it is disaffected workers who bear the brunt of the recession, and in Reagan they see a politician who has unduly favored the rich at their expense.
The Post poll found a sharp working-class, middle-class distinction in attitudes toward Reagan. Of those with incomes lower than $18,000 a year--more than half the sample--just 41 percent approve of Reagan's presidency; of those earning more than $30,000, 62 percent approve.
Bernice Schubert and her husband, Robert, have been out of work all year, have been turned down for food stamps because they refuse to sell their one small luxury, an inexpensive camper, and are about to run out of unemployment benefits.
"The thing of it is," Bernice Schubert said, "we did have jobs before and now we haven't got nothing. As far as him cutting the rich man's taxes, that's terrible. They haven't gone out and created any jobs. I haven't seen any of them give us anything. I don't think he's done anything but hurt the poor man."
The erosion of support among many people here is doubly painful for the Republicans because many of the people who say they believe the president is playing favorites were philosophically in tune with Reagan's campaign rhetoric. "Less government is good government," said Steve Reardon, a young farmer. "And fine, we all got greedy, we all wanted something for 'me.' But let's do away with everything. Let's hurt everybody."
Mayor Dave Polsky, an automobile dealer whose father experienced bankruptcy decades ago, expresses resentment: "The millionaires are getting rich and the peons are getting poorer."
These are deeply felt opinions, but not universal. Up the income ladder a few rungs, the attitudes are less harsh, often complimentary toward a leader who is attempting to shrink federal government, a course that appeals to the innate conservatism of the people in St. Joseph.
Few people here oppose the goals of Reagan's revolution: a smaller federal government, a stronger defense, more local control. But on the specifics--the massive tax cuts for businesses and individuals, the enormous allotment to the Defense Department, the swiftness of the domestic budget cuts--there is dissent even among the believers.
"The tax cut on top of the tremendous increase in defense spending--that's the debate. That's the guts of the thing," said Roger Hegarty, chairman of the board of First Midwest Bancorp. Inc. "And that's why our point was, why institute this 10 percent across-the-board cut at this point? Let's do everything else . . . . But let's don't play the riverboat gamble."
In the face of all this is that gnawing inconsistency in public attitudes toward Reagan's program. Despite criticisms, there remains the conviction that it will bring prosperity in the long run. What does that mean?
"I think it's invalid, it's the immediate reaction," said Councilman Nikes, who quit the real estate business because he could not see the bottom of this cycle. "Everyone's still thinking, 'The president says something, he knows more about it than I do, I'm going to stick with him for a while, I'm going to hang tough.' I think they'll claim that hope. They want it to get better . . . .
" But chances are, when you're talking to someone in St. Joseph, they have a good friend or relative out of work . . . they have a good friend or family member who is in worse financial shape than he was a year ago. So what you really have is, they want to believe, but when they get down to something they can really measure, it looks like it's getting worse." CHAPTER V: The Future
Clint Coons takes the long view. He remembers the really hard times, when he couldn't meet a payroll in the Depression, when he had to ask landlords and grocers to extend credit to his employes because he had no money to pay them. He also remembers something else that is vital to the St. Joseph story of today.
For much of its history, St. Joseph prospered. Its population peaked at 110,000 in the first decade of this century, but it remained a comfortable and solid place to live. It had all the strengths, and all the weaknesses, of basically a one-industry town centered on the stockyards.
Then, in 1967, economic disaster struck. Four great meatpacking plants closed, throwing 3,000 people out of work. Next, the brewery folded. St. Joe was in danger of becoming a ghost town.
Instead of wallowing in despair, the city regrouped and began an aggressive campaign to attract new industry. Clint Coons played a leading role in that effort. It was singularly successful: 21 new industries came to St. Joseph, and 35 major plants expanded. The city survived by diversifying its base.
Coons and others justly take pride in that achievement. They continue to seek new industry today. But today is different--harder.
"It's so difficult," Coons says. "So many things are happening at once. Our particular situation is exacerbated by the fact that interest rates are too high. There's no way these companies can afford to make capital investments if they have to borrow the money at these rates . . . . It's a stalemate. You can't do this because of that."
Unlike other crises, no clear villain presents itself this time, a fact that contributes to the general unease. Now, no Lyndon Johnson personifies national bitterness over Vietnam, no Richard Nixon symbolizes disgust over political corruption from on high.
Reagan certainly stands in greater political trouble than a year ago, but he has not yet become the Herbert Hoover of the 1980s. Too many people in St. Joseph, friends and foes of the president, say they believe the problems began long before he took office.
Democrats likely will profit from the immediate economic problems. But we found few people who believed that the Democratic Party has long-term solutions. "I'm a Democrat, but I think both parties are guilty," said Larry Huston, head of the St. Joseph Central Labor Council. "I think both parties have got to get off their butts. . . . . The Democrats' idea of solving something is to give it more money. The Republican idea is to give money to the rich and let it trickle down. But it doesn't trickle down so easily."
The disaffection with Washington and the loss of confidence in government at all levels is so great that people in St. Joseph have found no haven in any obvious political alternative.
But there is no ambiguity in the practical message from St. Joseph:
We're in trouble. Things are not working. We can't stand much more of this. The cuts are too drastic, and they weigh heaviest on those most in need. The wealthy need to do their share.
Most people here would agree with the political sentiments of Jake Ford, a leading banker and for years a major force in St. Joseph's life.
"Let's get off of it and get on to something," he says, addressing the politicians of Washington. "You've got mushing around and vacillation on the part of Reagan's advisers, and certainly the Congress has been no help whatsoever. Everybody's running for reelection . . . . There's been, oh, a rather strong amount of inflexibility on Reagan's part, and I don't know if that's politics or whether age has something to do with it. But, shoot, let's get something tied down and live with it so that we can look a little further than how are we going to get out of bed next morning."
For all their old self-reliance, the people of St. Joseph understand that they cannot stand alone. As someone said, turning around an old saying, "As the country goes, so will go St. Joseph."
A final observation. Our St. Joseph story deals, of necessity, with more problems than successes. Hugh Miner, the lawyer handling those bankruptcy cases, had a useful comment about that, too. When asked how bad conditions are, he thought a moment and said:
"I'm probably not in a good position to tell because I'm only dealing with the failures. Somewhere out there there's a tremendous amount that's working fine, like a Swiss watch."
That's undoubtedly true. But the evidence from here suggests a deeper problem. All the parts of that intricate mechanism are not working smoothly, and there is a real danger of a more serious breakdown.