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Poverty In Iowa: Why The Poor Often Don't Participate In Caucuses


So, Rachel, I want to tell you about two people I met a few days ago. They live in the town of Lamoni. This is in Decatur County down near the Missouri border. We're hearing a lot about the caucuses. Neither of them caucused last night, and I want to tell you why.



THERESA FARRELL: Hi, I'm Theresa Farrell (ph). I'm a grandmother of two, a mother of three.

TODD SHERMAN: My name's Todd (ph). I'm married. I have an 8-year-old son with autism and a 4-year-old son. And I went to kindergarten through college all here in Lamoni. I kind of moved around to work and come back home to the poorest county in the state of Iowa.

MARTIN: So the poorest county in Iowa. What does that look like?

GREENE: It's interesting. I mean, there's a vibrant university there. And as you heard, both Todd - whose last name is Sherman (ph) - and Theresa have college education. But like a lot of families, theirs depends on this food pantry where I met them. Todd is currently not working. As you heard, he's caring for his son with autism. Theresa just started work at a truck stop. She had been in and out of employment, dealing with health problems.

FARRELL: I've always battled with mental health issues - depression, anxiety. So about in 2007, I was in a car accident, and I sustained a traumatic brain injury, broke my arm, and it took a long time to recover from that.

GREENE: So both Theresa and Todd are living below the poverty line.

SHERMAN: So many variables. I'm one day away from losing everything. You know, I hate asking people for money, but if the option is either to ask my parents for money or to not have a gallon of milk in my fridge, I'm going to have to ask for money.

MARTIN: So who are they asking? Who's helping them?

GREENE: So they're getting help from family, but also federal assistance - disability, Medicaid. And they described to me this reality - if they take a job that pays even a little more, they could be dropped from some of these programs and actually be in worse shape.

SHERMAN: If I do go and get a full-time job and we make too much money and then we get cut off of insurance, how much is it going to cost to insure a 43-year-old, a 32-year-old and a 4-year-old? I went to college for four years. I have $60,000 in student loans. That doesn't make sense. It's so frustrating.

MARTIN: I mean, David, it's interesting - right? - that the role of the federal government in people's lives, in many ways, it is at the heart of this election.

GREENE: Yeah. And when I spoke to both Theresa and Todd, I'd actually just been talking a few hours before that with a farmer in a town close by. He is voting for President Trump because he says the Democrats give away too much welfare. He said people should just go out and get a job. And I raised that with Theresa and Todd, and they talked about these misconceptions around poverty.

FARRELL: I'm not stupid (laughter). I think that that's attached to a lot of it, is if she knew more, she'd do better, and that's not always the case. You know, I'm not lazy, and I'm not dumb, and I'm not trying to take anything from you (laughter). I feel guilty. I have guilt and shame.

SHERMAN: I'm not lazy. I've worked for the last 10 years of my life. That is the stigma that's attached to poverty, is you live in a free house, you know, get free insurance. You know, that's not necessarily the case.

MARTIN: So what about their political choices?

GREENE: Well, I asked them. And this is so interesting - they are amongst so many lower-income Americans who feel like they are not part of the political process. Todd said politicians just don't get what he's going through. He was not going to caucus last night. Theresa was afraid because she feels like she lacks the knowledge to make an informed decision.

FARRELL: I'm going to point a finger at my own political ignorance right now until I...

GREENE: Don't call it ignorance. A lot of people don't have time to...

FARRELL: It's just a - it's a big topic.

GREENE: So Rachel, I reached back to Theresa last night. She was sick, so she couldn't go to caucus. But after our interview, she actually got in touch with the local Democratic Party chair and is hoping to get more involved soon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.