The Electoral College

Grant Wood Painting Spring in Town

Grant Wood, "Spring in Town." 1941


Real Life in the Fiction Capital of America

     “But I, being poor, have only my dreams.
     I have spread my dreams under your feet;
     tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.”
          -William Butler Yeats

     “A people sometimes will step back from war
     elect an honest man; decide they care enough,
     that they can't leave some stranger poor.
     Some men become what they were born for.”
          -Sheenah Pugh

IN the pivotal year before a presidential election, Iowa has an urgency about it unlike anywhere in the country. The Iowa caucuses reveal who could star in our highest office and where, for some in the race, the dream suddenly ends. And Iowa itself becomes a star—for a moment it is the most important state in the nation and must stand up for all the others. Candidates swarm around the local inhabitants, eager to share their message and to listen to what folks have to say. Many come dozens of times and all of them spend time in Iowa City, the intellectual center of the state. “Like Athens, but with a really big mall” the Chamber of Commerce claims—home to the renown University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, a graduate finishing school for many of our best poets and novelists. Their impressions of Iowa have infiltrated some of the most notable books on the New York Times bestseller list, and few of its alumni leave unchanged by the meaning of the Midwest. Iowa City’s most interesting story now, however, is in the collage of symptoms it shares with the rest of the country: first and foremost—how many people are struggling to get by. Katrina brought the magnitude of poverty in the US to national attention, but not the funds to fix it. With the rising cost of fuel, housing and food combined with the mortgage crisis, more folks are living on the brink in every city, every town. And there is a growing dream where ending the Iraq war could free up federal support for what is needed here at home.

From above, Iowa is a patchwork of green fields stretching for hundreds of miles, now turning various shades of caramel. They echo the neatly drawn checkerboard of square county lines on the map, a quilt between the deckle edges of rivers: the Mississippi in the East, the Missouri to the West. When you pass over Iowa City, 200 miles due west of Chicago in the SE part of the state, you see the grid echoed in the neat crosshatch of streets in the old center of town. This is where the University of Iowa campus straddles the Iowa River with its gilt old capitol dome and shining futuristic Gehry-designed tech center. As the river winds north the roads break from straight lines into new housing districts that curl around planned circles. Tan clapboard townhouses and tract homes with white trim skirt the meadows and corn fields where old farms sit back in ancient clumps of trees. Somehow the skewed perspective and rolling prairies Grant Wood painted around this, his home town, seem more accurate than abstract. The rounded trees, the neatness of landscape—even as the leaves begin to fall—suggest a place of calm and little despair.

More on Johnson County Neighborhood Centers But poverty hides here in pockets and like most folks who are stuck in it, the poor would rather not draw attention to themselves. In the south of town, under the overpasses and bridges, the homeless of the Iowa City take shelter, with their makeshift tents, shopping carts, their bundles of collected scraps. Across the highway lies Broadway Street, where hundreds of people fleeing large cities, particularly young mothers with children from the Chicago area, live in small-unit housing projects along with many of the Hispanic poor. Not far away, the Pheasant Ridge projects house larger families as well as international immigrants: refugees from Somalia, the Sudan and Ivory Coast, Jordan and Iraq, from Asia, the Balkans, Russia and former Soviet states. The outermost pockets of poor are in the countryside in trailer parks and the few small farms and ranches that have not been bought by corporate conglomerates. There the families often struggle to feed their livestock first and only then think of themselves.      

Thumbnail Profile: Iowa City

Iowa City was recently voted one of the top ten places for relocating families for its housing, cost of living, its quality of life, a nectar drawing many to it and other stable university towns. But half the families who are poor here cannot afford a 2-bedroom apartment, and the waiting list for assisted housing in the area numbers over 2,500 and growing. The ‘thousand points of light’ that the first Bush president invited to take over the pressing social problems of our country nearly 20 years ago are definitely flickering and many have gone out. In the same span of time aid to needy children and families has dramatically diminished and anyone seeking assistance can be daunted at every turn. It is estimated that 40% of U.S. population is at risk and needing food resources, and nearly 13% live in desperate poverty. In Iowa it hovers at 11%—still a substantial portion of the population and an indicator of national needs that are too little discussed. And in Iowa City the people in need have grown by 25 percent in the last year alone.

As children we enjoy stories about deprivation met with resourcefulness—orphans finding some out-of-the-way shelter to fix up with bits of cast-off furnishings. When forced to find a way to earn a bit of money to buy the barest necessities, they do everything possible to avoid the worst misfortune: having to beg. From the Boxcar Children to Horatio Alger, the penniless orphans of fiction make their way through perseverance and cleverness against daunting odds. The romanticized adult counterpart is the ‘hobo’ who has turned away from social strictures out of wanderlust, riding the rails, picking up odd jobs for a meal or a slice of pie. But celebrating these fictional characters is far different than an adult facing the grim realities of poverty day after day, homeless or trying to provide for a family. Steinbeck spoke of how “you begin to see an expression...on every face; not worry, but absolute terror of the starvation that crowds in.” Recently, one of America’s bestselling novelists, William T. Vollman wrote a book recounting his conversations with the poorest people he met, and many have found it difficult—even painful to read. The reality of poverty lies in the lack of choices, the strain in finding a glimmer of hope to get through one day and on to the next. It can be utterly grim and heartbreaking.

For celebrities, and those in the public spotlight, the irony is that having survived such hardship is apparently one of the best career moves around. From American Idol to the race for the presidency, people who have come to prominence after a time of ‘hard luck’ find the media eagerly spinning it into rags to riches legends. And in the run up to the election, each candidate passing through who comes from modest means tends to talk about it or even play it up. They make the most of Heinrich Heine’s notion that “Poverty sits by the cradle of all our great men and rocks them to adulthood.” In sharp contrast being ‘currently’ homeless or poor is more often seen as a failure of will, evidence of lack of persistence in outwitting the odds. And having to ask for public assistance requires a special stamina, the strain of eating one’s pride in order to eat at all.

The Johnson County Crisis Center and Food Bank is where the people in need around here meet: the homeless, the unemployed, foreign refugees, the farmers and working poor, the struggling students, and those whose mental states are reaching the breaking point. It sits in the Southeast section of town, not far from the Neighborhood Centers’ at Broadway and Pheasant Ridge. The Phone Bank volunteers occupy one long room, offering information and counseling to people who call with worries and despair. There are stories of lost jobs, downsizing, injuries and illness, panic about bills coming due with no ability to pay, and the whole range of ‘distress in general’—the difficulties coping with daily challenges of life. At the back of the Center, the Food Bank doors open weekdays at noon— and here the hungry appear in person. They can pick up a bag of groceries once a week and get information on other help available in the area. The Bank also gives ‘micro funds’ each month for transit tickets, vouchers for clothing, work boots, partial help with overdue bills. Most of the people who find their way here are surprised to find how warmly they’re welcomed in and how many others are sharing the same situation. If anyone wants to find out what needs to be fixed in our country, the Crisis Center is the place to ask.

Recently Simon Cowell, the notoriously grumpy producer and judge of American Idol, spent a day giving out food at the Community Food Bank in Los Angeles. He expressed surprise: “Nobody was made to feel uncomfortable about being in this situation. They were treated with dignity and respect. I just didn’t know that such places existed.” People needing food get media attention at holiday time, but chronic hunger in America still comes as a shock to many, who are often unaware of the support organizations that are trying to help. Most cities and towns have a food bank, many dating back to the 1970’s when funds for Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society-War On Poverty’ programs were hijacked by the Viet Nam War—a situation not unlike today. Activists who had helped to end that war in Iowa City and elsewhere turned to problems within the country in concert with local religious groups. Bolstered by ‘the power of the people,’ the volunteer wave of the seventies founded many of the service-oriented genuine ‘points of light’ that survive today.

In Iowa City the growth was organic. A telephone hotline for non-traditional counseling on drug overdoses gradually became an outlet for the growing number of de-institutionalized mental patients. The founders of Iowa City’s Crisis Center look more like a rock group than social workers, with beards and bangs, bell bottoms and counter-culture solidarity. Howard Weinburg, the Center’s first Executive Director, was a clinical psychologist and worked with doctors at the Community Mental Health Center, where they were overwhelmed with patients released from closing institutions. They began the telephone ‘hotline’ with UI sociology student volunteers. Their confidentiality and extension of care, along with the solid medical advice they offered, soon made it indispensable to the city—and beyond to the rural population. Weinberg is still practicing in the area and recounts how the volunteer-run Center began its tradition of empathy: “I learned that our similarities far outweigh our differences. A 65-year old Auschwitz survivor can, and did, clearly hear the concerns of a UI freshman. A 17-year old high school senior could, and did, respond to the suffering of a middle-aged man whose wife walked out on him. At a time (1970) when the country was even more divided than it is now, by war, by race, by generation, by lifestyle, by ideology, this was big news. It’s still big news.”

From its mental health roots, often tied to issues of poverty, the Center expanded to serve walk-in clients and then added a small food pantry in 1975. At present, more than 4,000 households request assistance each year from the Center’s Food Bank and emergency services, hundreds more than last year. Two major supermarkets in the area have recently closed, cutting off a supply source for the Food Bank, and at the same time sending a fleet of unemployed workers to its doors for weekly sustenance. Almost half of those receiving services are children under 18. Of the adults served, contrary to what one might expect, around half are employed. Many of the working poor are from the remaining farms and rural areas, or in the lowest paying jobs including service industries and migrant farm work. Over a quarter of all the Crisis Center clients are single women with young children, for whom baby food and diapers are a lifesaver.

More on Dayna Ballantyne

Dayna Ballantyne, who manages the Food Bank in Iowa City, is a striking, willowy young woman with auburn hair who is managing a very fashionable pregnancy. She has created a welcoming atmosphere for those who arrive for food and help, streamlining interviews to get a clear picture of what people need. She trains the volunteers, who come from all walks of the community, in how to communicate with a supportive, nonjudgmental gaze and to ask questions respectfully, gathering a few facts from each person who comes in so they’ll be eligible for assistance but protect their privacy. Stephen Fox, a UI emeritus professor in psychology who has volunteered for many years at the Bank, speaks of the emotional connection “Dayna is the real soul of the place. It is her spirit and manner of dealing with people that sets the tone here.” Observing her for awhile, she makes it look easy. But gradually you see how her natural warmth is combined with years of learning what people respond to best, and how to draw boundaries where needed, with clarity and grace.

An empathic simulation game called Cinderella Minus The Prince is what Ballantyne uses to train volunteers. In just 25 minutes you get the compressed sense of going to agency after agency, church-group and non-profit organization to learn what it means to ask for help. Each player gets a client profile of a woman who is single, divorced, widowed—mine was a woman in her 30’s with 6 kids and without a high school degree. Each ‘player’ is trying to support a family on an extremely limited income and the only way to survive is to cobble together scraps of community aid. The players whose profile includes children must haul around symbolic large empty cardboard boxes, one per child, and if they’re lucky some of them are school age and can be dropped off at a sign marked ‘Schoolhouse.’ Not having children in real life, I misunderstand and try to drop off all six boxes and am reminded that two are toddlers and must be strapped back on for the rest of the game. We go as quickly as we’re able around to tables with signs for each organization and draw a card from a pile marked A. There are federal agencies for employment and unemployment, food stamps, family aid, and non-profits for health and childcare, church groups, women’s support centers, and food banks. If that card gives you get the go ahead for an appointment (a situation often thwarted by the right person being out) you can draw from Pile B. That card gets you in the door to talk to someone but guarantees nothing and often means filling in forms to see if you qualify which can send you back to Pile A on a return visit.

More on the Johnson County Food Bank

The Food Bank station is the one zone in both game and reality where you can always get immediate help. You are welcomed in and walk out with a bag of groceries—crucial for re-establishing a baseline of hope for anyone who is poor. The frustration of making the rounds of other agencies is palpable, and later useful in understanding state of mind of folks who arrive at the Crisis Center/Food Bank. They have been forced to tell their story over and over, the circumstances that have put them in need. There is a sameness to many, women often leaving a difficult if not abusive relationship and wanting to find a better place for their children, amid the poignancy of their particulars. Some speak of gunfire in their Chicago neighborhood or of a young person murdered that became the tipping point. “I had to get out of there,” a young mother says with a shudder, “whatever it took to get out.” Elizabeth Haas, the Food Bank assistant, tells how the Crisis Center is receiving many more calls from mothers with children asking for help to make their way from Chicago to Iowa City. “We have no way to help them get here,” she tells me, “But when they come, we give them what we can.”

Amy Correia, the Social Services Coordinator for Johnson County, explains the bigger picture, how things have changed in the area since welfare reform over a decade ago. While jobs-to-work programs have been somewhat successful, affordable housing in urban areas has been slipping through the cracks. “Chicago has a mandate to re-build public housing whenever a project is torn down, but unfortunately it isn’t happening. Inner city families who are evicted prior to demolition have nowhere to go. And a lot of mothers with children head towards Iowa, where they have heard there are more opportunities and support services,” she adds “and where public assistance is available for five years, three more than in Illinois.” Correia conveys warmth and efficiency, someone who listens closely, anxious to understand a situation fully in order to figure out how to help. There are more chances here for people to rise up out of poverty, find training and jobs, but she also acknowledges how Johnson County resources are strained by dilemmas that are urban in origin.

Iowa City is in Garrison Keilor-country—just south of Lake Wobegone with Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian leanings. A running joke is that it contains the ‘whole ethnic spectrum from German to Norwegian’ but a significant demographic shift has taken place over the last twenty years. The ‘faith community’ now includes a local Mosque, and several of the churches offer services in Swahili, Korean, and Spanish. Religious groups have successfully relocated many political refugees in Iowa City, among many other communities throughout the Midwest, some fleeing a different sort of gunfire in the Sudan and Iraq. The African-American population has tripled since 1980, more visible now but always a presence since Iowa was host to many ‘stations’ on the underground railroad over a century ago. And although the number of African-American farmers since that time has decreased along with all single-family farms, their engagement in new businesses is on the rise. The Hispanic-speaking population not involved in farming are, with other foreigners, generally taking on jobs which require less in language and more in physical toil. “People sometimes worry about the impact of a new influx of immigrants on support organizations, but they forget we’re all immigrants here, at one time or another.” Laurence Fuortes, a leading professor of Public Health at UI and longtime volunteer at the Crisis Center, explains. “They don’t realize that the taxes foreign immigrants, particularly the three-quarters who are ‘illegal,’ log but cannot access are actually keeping many programs solvent for the rest of us.” He points to a New York Times article documenting their billions of dollars in unused Social Security and Medicare taxes that have been bolstering our system for years.

Many of the newcomers are drawn to the university or professional jobs in the area, which is in a thriving technology corridor also stretching East from Chicago to Des Moines in the West. By and large, the ‘immigrants’ both from abroad and within the U.S. seem to appreciate the relative calm of Johnson County. The community is one of accommodation in spirit, even if actual housing is in short supply.


More on Ross Wilburn

Video Interview Clip


Iowa City Mayor Ross Wilburn is widely recognized as a local force trying to end the poverty cycle in Iowa City by taking on the bigger picture. As the Crisis Center/Food Bank Executive Director, he has been working for decades on the constellation of problems that affect Johnson County, particularly those of the poor. He began as a volunteer at the Crisis Hotline in 1988 then became an administrator at a related non-profit for the disadvantaged, United Action for Youth. He found he was adept at crisis intervention and got an MSW in social work at the University of Iowa where he is still adjunct faculty. In 1999 he was elected to the City Council on his third try and in 2000 he took over the executive job at the Crisis Center to usher it into a new era. And finally in 2005—apparently he is a man with little need for sleep—Wilburn became Mayor of Iowa City by a unanimous vote of the Council.

A thoughtful, friendly, athletic African-American in his early 40’s, Wilburn has an ease and calm marked by a beaming smile. He bikes to work and is often seen around town giving speeches and launching local programs, some of which (like the summer arts festivals) are decidedly upbeat compared to his usual fare. During the last presidential race, Wilburn brought candidates to the Crisis Center to witness the problems, to see how citizen response was meeting the challenge, and to explain the shortfall and long term needs. Howard Dean filled food bags for several hours and his campaign workers, inspired by Wilburn’s appeal, made commitments to become regular volunteers at the Center beyond their “photo op” day. Food donations then, as today, were failing to meet the growing numbers of needy people —the shelves were nearly bare and annual funds to buy supplemental food had already run out less than half way through the year.

In the last election CNN described Wilburn as a ‘kingmaker of the next democratic nominee’ in his ability to marshal votes in the Iowa Caucus. This time he has publicly endorsed Barack Obama, who also started as a community organizer in the poor neighborhoods of Chicago. Obama’s dedication reflects Wilburn’s own stance: “If poverty is a disease that infects the entire community in the form of unemployment and violence, failing schools and broken homes, then we can't just treat those symptoms in isolation. We have to heal that entire community.” Iowa City is lucky—unlike some urban areas, the town has, by all accounts, wonderful schools and rare acts of violence. But Wilburn has witnessed the loss of farms and closing of factories in the area, he has seen the gradual changes in the social and economic texture and the financial strain on local services. He has watched how it cascades down to the poorest in the community. “With some of the big changes, factory closings, for instance, you don’t see the effect immediately,” Wilburn explains. “It is two or three years down the road when folks have reached the end of all they have.” He knows how crucial it is to help people before they feel they are hanging on by the bottom rung. Wilburn has the long view of which problems are tied to poverty and what kind of help people need to fully turn their situation around. Because the Crisis Center’s key role is making referrals, he knows the state of the relief agencies in the area, those that are straining from federal cut backs and increased needs. He is also acutely aware of how poverty and mental strain frequently go hand in hand.

More on Simulation and Reality

Deprivation is something difficult to imagine when you aren’t living with it every day. Rather like pain, it is easy to recall an instance of it, so much harder to imagine as a chronic condition. American attitudes about class and work ethic can make poverty seem “like a punishment for a crime you didn’t commit.” Most of us have had a brush with hardship, when funds were so tight that we remember the exact amount of money we lived on day to day, the lingering taste of the food we had. It is a situation that makes many volunteers at the Food Bank feel a kinship with those they help, far different from charity or largesse. Linda Bolton, a noted writer and professor in the English Department at the University of Iowa, is a valued long-term volunteer at the Crisis Center Food Bank. After handling interviews and handing out bags of food for years, she decided to live for two weeks on the same diet given out each week in brown paper bags. It was a personal journey, gaining a deeper understanding of the people she interviews and helps. She now asks the students of her course in diversity to undergo the same experiment. They register at the Food Bank and are expected to live on just what they can obtain there plus about $40 for weekly incidentals. The paper bag of canned food won’t cover all the needs, but it frees up whatever funds might have been spent on food for other necessities—rent or utilities. “The effect,” Bolton says of her own journey and those of her students “has been amazing. And difficult. What is the hardest are the choices you have to make: the lack of choices. The sameness of flavors day after day and the cravings you wrestle with at night.”

The daily frustrations, lack of choices—the leads tried and failed—compound a sense of being trapped. Wilburn has seen over and over that two adults working for minimum wage cannot support a family and yet somehow feel they just aren’t working hard enough by society’s standards. Then, poverty grips and holds each individual in hunger and poor nutrition which in turn affect thinking and energy. Who wouldn’t be depressed in these circumstances? As Barbara Ehrenreich has demonstrated in Nickel and Dimed, “When someone works for less pay than she can live on, when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently—then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made a gift of some part of her abilities, her health and her life.” Increasingly, the poor suffer from chronic and undiagnosed mental depression but do not seek help because they see their situation as normal. Their mental state is not something they think could change, as the first step toward hope, without having real hope of food, home, a stable job on the horizon.

The Crisis Center refers many of its hotline callers to Community Mental Health for treatment, where they can obtain excellent psychiatric services on a sliding scale. In all of Iowa there are perhaps 230 psychiatrists, and the rural population, in particular, is remote and often neglected, feeling the greatest stigma about seeking help. “Folks from other towns will drive to Iowa City so no one will see their pickup in front of the rural mental health office.” Stephen Trefz, the Executive Director of CMH explains. But, because of the extraordinary rise of people in need, appointments to see one of their three psychiatrists can be two months away. Often by the time someone musters the courage to seek help, they have reached the breaking point. “We now see more of what we call the ‘fingernail’ people’” Trefz explains. Ten years ago farmers were so much in debt and the banks began to call in their notes. Then layoffs began in a few of the factories, and some shut down entirely. Others like MCI began outsourcing their telephone services abroad. “Five years ago we might see a person who was depressed because they were out of work,” Trefz adds, “Now, the same person is just hanging on by their fingernails. They are depressed, out of work, sometimes homeless, sometimes with legal or serious health issues and often they have added substance-abuse to the mix.”

Many rely on the Johnson County Crisis Center hotline to help them get through the worst of days. Keri Neblett manages the Hotline with a volunteer staff of 60 working three shifts, 24-hours a day, seven days a week. Neblett’s striking resemblance to Lucy Lawless has not gone unnoticed: her door is covered with Zena Warrior Princess photos from her co-workers. Her dark eyes convey engagement, calm, and depth, and the innate empathy she shares with Dayna Ballantyne. Her brightness and vulnerability allow one to easily open up in her presence. Last year she and her crew handled nearly 8,000 calls, roughly half of which involve counseling and the other half seeking referrals to the other service agencies. Many were conditioned by poverty, by a confluence of situations that had chipped away at the caller’s self-confidence. The most challenging are calls from people contemplating suicide—a dozen or so each year are ‘suicides in progress’ where a person who doesn’t want to be rescued might be coaxed back from the brink and let help arrive in time.

Increasingly people with mental illness who are poor, uninsured and cannot afford their medications, call desperate for some kind of reassurance. A few become ‘regular clients’ who must be limited in the amount of phone time they are granted—their loneliness and anxiety could absorb many hours each day. Volunteers are trained over a period of months under the guidance of Neblett and senior Crisis Center mentors. There is the challenge to convey the appropriate empathy by telephone—the art of an ‘invisible manner of listening,’ finding ways to validate feelings, helping callers problem-solve their situation. And when calls return again and again to lack of money, it can be hard to conjure light in the tunnel. Keri sighs, “In so many ways, we are limited in what we can offer in help, but it is wonderful when we can truly help someone get the assistance they need.” For the volunteers who work with her, with Wilburn, Ballantyne and all the Crisis Center staff, the comfort they find there is transforming.

Kendra is both a former client and current volunteer. Finishing her internship in social work at the Crisis Center, she chose this field as a result of being helped by the Hotline years ago. An attractive African-American woman in her late thirties, she has managed to spiral up from each amount of assistance she has received and is anxious to share that success with others in the same predicament. Emerging from the Bronx and an abusive marriage at a young age, she took her two young children and made the move to Iowa City with the dream of a college education. Raised in a household that valued school—her parents both scrimped to send she and her brother to a private Bronx catholic school— she instinctively knew education was important to the way out. Kendra needed every kind of assistance to make the move: housing, utilities and food assistance, childcare and medical insurance for her kids who each suffer from chronic health problems. The Crisis Center/Food Bank was instrumental in helping her with the transition, directing her to all the places of help and offering supplemental food to their weekly food stamps.

After years struggling in poverty, Kendra managed to find night work allowing her to care for her children and attend classes. She sleeps roughly 4 hours a night between 6 and 10 p.m., after making dinner for her kids and discussing their day. After 10 she leaves for her job as a night-clerk at a local chain hotel—on nights of lightest traffic she is able to cram in some studying. And at 38, from years of saving, she now owns her own home and is recently happily remarried. Relentlessly positive when the chips are down, Kendra’s approach to the worst challenges, including her ex-husband, are to wish them well and send them on their way: “Don’t be bitter, forget being sad, just say ‘I hope things go well for you’ and close the door.” She is dedicated to ‘giving back’ as she calls it, hoping to eventually work with children in need. Her own children are now 10 and 17, thriving in the local public schools which she finds excellent—as good as private ones she left behind in the Manhattan boroughs. Because of her children’s health, one thing she heavily relied on was Hawk-i, the state-funded insurance for kids under 18. Hawk-i is for families not otherwise qualified for Medicaid, and in Iowa it is suddenly $16 million dollars short this year—a situation a recent national bill could have remedied but which President Bush vetoed. “If Hawk-i hadn’t been available for my kids,” Kendra says “I never would have been able to do it. I’m barely doing it now, only because I don’t sleep. But if one thing goes, everything can come falling down.”

For many families in Iowa City and around the country, economic stability is in trembling balance. Any major health crisis can push it over the edge, and several candidates are declaring that being ‘one paycheck away from poverty’ is no way to live. Strategies to fix it will take focus, money and, above all: time. In discussing the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, Kendra acknowledges how the scenes it painted were terribly familiar. Will Smith’s smart but impoverished hero is trying to build a new life for himself and his son, encountering a long line of well-meaning folks who have to administer the diminished resources of their struggling organizations to people in need. The fairy tale moment is when the male hero of the movie manages to land a position with a wall street brokerage firm within a year due to a lucky break, along with his hard work. His time on relief is short and his overall prospects extremely bright. For most people, especially single mothers with more than one child, it can take years of a precarious schedule to complete their education and move on to a job able to support a family. To truly turn one’s life around from abject poverty to some semblance of security is an endurance test. And because of the demands of work and family, and the lack of personal time, these are the people least likely to be able to come out to a public meeting and talk to a presidential candidate in person.


At the Hamburg Inn 2 in Iowa City it is possible to feel under-tattooed and pierced, to wish you had the courage to wear plaid flannel jammer bottoms like some of the wait staff. It is the place that all the presidential candidates go for a meal to talk to locals, sitting in booths hugging walls covered with photographs of previous contenders. The Inn, which advertises itself as a fifties diner with a contemporary edge, years ago began setting out voting jars for each candidate during the caucus year and letting its patrons vote with coffee beans. Informal at first, the labeled jars (and there are many of them at present) now sit in a glass case at the front so that beans aren’t loaded in by the handful. Your server will carefully drop in one vote per person and track it on a steno pad. Obama is currently in the lead here, he has made many well-publicized trips to Iowa City along with his field of rivals, and has a large student following. Ross Wilburn, in addition to his duties at Mayor and Crisis Center Director, is now on Obama’s speaker’s list, giving talks to stir up interest in attending the caucuses which have just moved to January 3rd to retain Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status in the election year.


Profiles for plans to end poverty
Barack Obama
Hillary Clinton
John Edwards

“Barack Obama is the one who is not afraid to think outside of the box,” Wilburn tells me, “He wants to create urban centers modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone, which will take into account what local poverty workers have tried with success.” Obama’s plan addresses the dense urban thickets of poverty and could stem the flow of people leaving large cities; he is also dedicated to improving the economy for the rural poor. Since the ‘War On Poverty’ was declared in the 1970’s, federal efforts have, as Sen. Chuck Schumer has noted, amounted to little more than ‘a few skirmishes.’ Obama is among several candidates passing through, offering up ways the federal government could renew its commitment. Most plans offer tax breaks for poor families, more chances for jobs and job training, improved housing and transportation, free health care and early childhood education. Of the other candidates who have poverty at the forefront of their campaign, John Edwards has been at it the longest—it was the core of his presidential bid four years ago. He believes poverty can be eradicated over thirty years with a series of job, education and housing reforms. Hillary Clinton’s policy was fashioned later in the game and is framed towards rebuilding the middle class. Her plan has similarities to other contenders’ with an emphasis on health care and children’s services. The appeal to folks in need, especially those from the middle class who have recently joined the ranks of the poor—testimonials of pensions lost, the crush of health care costs— are dominating televised ads as caucus time approaches. Candidates often play on the fears of the masses in mobilizing votes, but this year the fear of widespread economic crisis is striking everyone as sensible, as real.

In a short time the Iowa Caucuses will convene. It truly is an old fashioned ‘gathering of neighbors’ in thousands of local precincts around the state. You vote with your body, your very person—it is the antithesis of the anonymous, clandestine and solitary voting booths our modern-day democracy has become. The Caucus is festive and immediate—all persons of opinion and allegiances converging in tightly packed rooms, raising their hands for what and whom they believe in. It is a civic engagement one rarely gets to see in this country, the ancient definition of the polis brought to life, and the person who wins is usually ‘emboldened’ (as they say) by their showing here—at least half of the time they go on to assume the presidency.

More on Mayor’s Task Force Plan

The election map of Johnson County has neither hard red nor deep blue polarities; it is a place of intermixed Democrats and Republicans who seem to prefer getting along to partisan bickering. It is a cooperation that makes one long for a non-partisan solution to poverty that could survive derailment in Washington by either party. In this regard Wilburn offers insight and example. Increasingly mayors play an unusual and substantial national role. They are held directly accountable for the growth and change or decline and decay of the cities they preside over and are the most accessible (of all politicians) to the people the serve. They are able to freely sign policies like the Kyoto Accord or declare their city a ‘nuclear-free zone’—activism on a local level that may be at odds with national positions. And they are usually in the best position to speak up for their constituents: they live in their midst, they witness local changes firsthand. In the last two years, the Conference of Mayors has increasingly become a force of its own, citing poverty as a significant problem in every community. Their Task Force on Poverty, led by Mayor Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, has issued a plan of action that offers realistic hope for change, for leveraging civic power to obtain greater federal, state and private support. It is a hopeful document, largely because it isn’t tethered to either party, and is full of practical and somewhat radical solutions that echo the best ideas in all the presidential campaigns. Whatever happens come January, ‘mayorial might,’ the collective voice of towns and cities, is something that may go beyond the current campaigns and could be a potent force in truly helping the poor.

Ross Wilburn in Iowa City is in a unique position of power, communicating with the townsfolk, with his co-equals around the country, and fielding the candidates passing through— directing them to the most significant concerns. Sitting through the lengthy City Council meetings he chairs, witnessing the less glamorous business in the endless parade of zoning ordinances he must review and decide (each of which can change the character of the town) one recognizes his dedication. To understand and weigh the needs for development with urgencies of housing, the concerns of the poor and fears of the rich, takes a rare, patient individual. Wilburn is a quiet, calm man—neither flashy nor forced. He credits his time as an officer in the Army National Guard for his determination and leadership skills. He enjoyed the discipline, the push to perform and serve. In a rare moment he offers up a military metaphor of his current philosophy: “When we went out on patrol, we always put the slowest vehicle in our convoy in the lead—it is only by keeping them all together that you achieve greater strength. Otherwise the fastest will race on ahead, weakening the whole group. In the same way our community is no greater than the least fortunate person. The better off that person is, the stronger, more affluent we all are.”

The autumn leaves have now fallen in Iowa City, the trees are bare, the caramel fields are turning to brown in advance of winter snow. In the Northern part of town Shelter House, which has 40 beds for the homeless, is having people sleep in shifts due to lack of space. The faith community is working together to provide beds for the overflow, rotating services from church to church throughout the month, but claiming they, too, are exhausted by the growing numbers of people with no other place to go. The temperatures have dropped to freezing and will soon sink way below; there is a drive to collect coats to distribute to anyone in need. And the first casualty of the weather, a homeless man, has been found dead under one of the town bridges. He, along with the growing need for shelter, for food, for warm clothes, have made the evening news.

At the Crisis Center Dayna Ballantyne has given birth to twin girls and there is an air of rejoicing. There is grieving as well: Stephen Fox, the longtime volunteer, has died from a sudden illness. In a place where everyone is valued, each loss takes its toll. If you ask Ross Wilburn and the rest of the staff at the Crisis Center and Food Bank what their best day is, it is being able to see the measure of their work in signs of wellbeing. The knowledge that a family will be able to eat that night, that a person who might have given up on life has found courage to get through another day. There are organizations like theirs in most cities in America, all working to turn around the poverty that is so often ignored. All of them face diminishing funds and donations amid increasing costs. Most would give anything to have a fraction of what our government currently spends in one day in Iraq. If Iowa City offers insight by example, hopefully the Crisis Center will be the place that all the candidates not only visit but stay to listen after the cameras are gone. They can hear firsthand about ‘the exhausting creativity it takes to survive when you have no bootstraps to pull up.’ They will also come to know the people who struggle each day to gather up help, and who are hoping the coming election will result in real change, in a creative approach to solving the nation’s most poignant problems here at home.

Author note:

D.L. PUGHE is a writer currently living part of the year in Iowa City, IA and in Berkeley, CA. MIT Press has published her essays in "The New Earth Reader," and "Writings on Water," and "Writings on Air." Her "Letter from the Far Territories" was included in "When Pain Strikes," a volume in the University of Minnesota Press "Theory Out of Bounds" Series. An essay on Bill Viola and William James is in "Searchlight: Conscioussess at the Millenium" from Thames and Hudson. NEST, a New York based magazine that featured literary aspects of habitat, published several episodes from "A Philosophy of Clean," a series of essays on cleaning that was originally funded by the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada. Her essay “Being In Dog Time” about shelter dogs and “The Far and Near of Dogness,”about dog studies in universities worldwide are published in BARK Magazine. Pughe has published prose, poetry and essays in literary journals, most recently the Five Finger Review.

contact: dlpughe at

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