“Walmart Moms” & the national “funk”

Just got off the phone with former Iowa Governor/US Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack. During a discussion of federal government grants/efforts to expand the power grid so the electricity generated by wind turbines can actually be used, Vilsack offered up this:

“I think it sends a positive, confident message. I mean, Kay, the reality here is there are a lot of good things happening in the country today and we really have to get ourselves out of the funk that we’re in by focusing on those good things and making sure that we can do more of them more quickly, which is why the president’s proposed the Jobs Act, why we are trying to streamline the transmission line approval process and why we’re trying to get the free trade agreements passed.”

Made me think of the song “We Want the Funk” by George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic.  Suffice it to say, Vilsack and the rest of the Obama Administration do not want the country to keep focusing on our collective funk.

I saw and heard the poster children for the national funk myself, firsthand, last night when I watched a focus group meet at a place called Essman Research in Des Moines.  (The 90-minute session was organized by two firms, the Republican-leaning Public Opinion Strategies and the Democratic-leaning Momentum Strategies.)

The 10 women were characterized by the research firms as “Walmart Moms” and the group talked about their collective efforts to manage their family budgets, from bargain-shopping to extreme couponing. “I don’t even look if it’s not on sale,” one woman said, before revealing: “It kills me to spend $3 on toothpaste.”  Three of the 10 have taken a second job to try to make ends meet.

“I’m real tired,” one of the women said of her multiple responsibilities, like ensuring that her family has enough to eat, that her husband is satisfied with his job, that her three kids get to all their activities. She’s one of the women working two jobs — and she revealed she serves on her local school board.  Talk about multi-tasking.

Just to give you an idea of the level of their collective funk, here are the words these women used to describe how they feel about the direction of the country: confused, worried, scary, discouraged, frustrated, off-track, hopeless.

One of the women expressed the fear that her home won’t sell if her family moves so her husband can be closed to the family business.  They are all intimately familiar with unemployment. Most are either married to, friends with or the relative of someone who is/has been unemployed.   Two others talked about their serious health issues (cancer treatment, a stroke) and their concerns about losing health insurance, or finding the means to cover their premiums.  When one of the woman described what I would term the “Cadillac” health insurance she and her family get through her husband’s job, the nine other women around the table seemed stunned.  “You don’t pay anything?” one asked.

The most interesting part of the evening was when the focus group facilitator asked the women to assess blame.

“It just is what it is,” one women said.

The women who said “society” was to blame said: “We just kept spending..and all of a sudden the dam broke.”

Another women who had earlier described how she and her husband had abandoned their high-spending lifestyle in favor of thrift offered up this: “I think it’s greed.  Greed has gotten us into this,” she said.  “…Wall Street, politicians…everybody’s greed.”

That opinion was shared around the table. “I think there’s blame everywhere.  Nobody thought ahead,” said a married women raising two kids.  “…Lenders, Wall Street, us, politicians — I think there’s blame everywhere.”

When prompted to ponder the idea that the blame sits on the shoulders of the country’s politicians, one women quickly said:  “They didn’t pile up credit card debt in my house.”

The women volunteered words ranging from disappointed and hollow to hopeful to describe their attitudes toward President Obama.  “I still like him,” one said, while another said she would not vote for Obama again because of a “lack of action” on critical issues.

But when it came to describing their attitudes to the Republican-led congress, their impressions were uniformly negative, ranging from dysfunctional and childish to ineffective and overpaid.

“I don’t think anybody’s working for the good of the country,” one of the women said of D.C. in general. “…I think they’re working for the good of the lobbyists.”

Most of the women decried the partisan divide in congress.  “They’re just busy yapping,” one woman said. “…Nobody’s taking the middle ground and saying, “Let’s fix this.”

As the discussion continued, it became clear some of the women hold quite negative views of the president. One of the women actually mentioned her reluctance to offend others at the table by speaking harshly.  Near this point in the conversation, one Walmart Mom mentioned how President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner had very publicly made a show of playing golf together. “”Could there be any more PR crap?” she said. “You both loathe each other.”

At this point, the facilitator brought up the topic of blame again, and the women spread the blame on “both sides.”

“It’s like watching two junior high kids,” said a women who is a 4-H leader.

When prompted to share their impressions of Boehner, there was silence until one women volunteered that Boehner was a “cry baby.”  She mentioned his interview on 60 Minutes and described how she was “giggling” as she watched it.  “It was just comical.”

It was clear another had seen the speech Boehner gave just before the U.S. House passed the health care reform bill.  “He got nasty,” she said, adding that kind of rhetoric makes her “crazy” and “uncomfortable.”

However, six of the 10 women said they’d like to see Republicans control congress after the 2012 elections and they cited their hopes that Republicans might exercise some fiscal restraint.  One woman specifically volunteered she was leaning Republicans because she hoped the GOP would do something to address illegal immigration.

Of the Republican presidential candidates, Michele Bachmann was viewed as “too extreme” while Herman Cain got a couple of positive mentions.  Cain “doesn’t seem politiciany” one women explained.  “It doesn’t seem like he’s trying to impress everybody. He’s real to me.”

Not a single woman expressed disappointment in Sarah Palin’s decision not to run for president.  “Good,” one said when the facilitator mentioned Palin’s announcement yesterday. “Fine with me.”

If you’re a politician, the closing part of this conversation should make you squirm.  These women — nine of whom described how financial stress is dominating their everyday lives — have zero confidence that the political class is even considering their concerns.

“Are we heard?” one asked rhetorically.

Another jokingly suggested it would take a “wife swap” to make the political “elite” understand what’s going on in the rest of the country.

“I think it’s a good old boy’s world,” said another.

These Walmart Moms said politicians would “lower my taxes” and “create jobs” and “get along” if they truly understood what the life of a Walmart Mom was like.  One poignantly suggested the power elite would “laugh” about her overloaded schedule. “They’d say, ‘Who would want to live that life?'” she said.

The closing advice these Walmart Moms offered for the country’s politicians seems like the kind of advice all of our moms gave us when we left the house:  be honest and be civil.   A few also delivered the kind of kick-in-the-pants advice that only a mother can deliver.  One women couldn’t have been more succinct. “Step up your game,” she said.

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.