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The View From The Northeast: Economic Concerns


And we are getting the view from the northeast on this Thursday morning. We're in Providence, R.I. We're before a live audience, thanks to our friends at Rhode Island Public Radio who got the word out.


INSKEEP: All right. Thanks, guys. Apparently somebody listens to you at Rhode Island Public Radio. That's good to know. Hands up from the Rhode Island Public Radio representative. We're at the Fleet Library at the Rhode Island School of Design. This is a library that symbolizes wealth, a wealth of knowledge but also just wealth. It used to be a fleet bank. We've got an ornate arched ceiling. We've got this giant clock dangling from it, a reminder that the Northeast includes many of the wealthiest parts of this country. Wealthy enough that some people have been mystified by the politics of this election year. Let's listen to Albert Mezzaroba, a Republican lawyer we met in Bucks County, Pa.

Why is it that people feel they need change?

ALBERT MEZZAROBA: I don't know. Things aren't that bad. I don't know why everybody thinks they're so terrible. I mean, I don't get it. I truly don't get it. But they do.

INSKEEP: He does have some reasons to wonder. The economy is up, unemployment is down, but we find a different answer in some details. We knocked on doors in a suburban area, Levittown, Pa., and we met a recent college graduate, Gary Margerum (ph), who had an insight about his middle-class community.

GARY MARGERUM: I would say the biggest thing around here is that a lot of people my age, it's very divided on who goes to higher education and who doesn't. So it's a - half do not go to college, half do. You know, it seems inevitable to go to college, and it's something they always push for. It's a huge pressure. You know, when I was graduating it was anyway. It's all people cared about. It's all people talked about and it's what I think our parents' generation really pushed for. But then it comes down to the, you know, the finances. And a lot of us are, you know, definitely in the hole right now.

INSKEEP: Some of his friends didn't go to college. Some, like Margerum, graduated with six figures of student debt, which he's trying to pay back as a music teacher. Now, we invited folks in our live audience to write down on these cards here what economic concerns you see and the biggest stack was - well, as Ashley Montagne (ph) put it, student loans - giant bold-faced letters, exclamation point. If you wrote student loans, would you let people hear you right now. Who said that out here? No, just applaud, whatever you want to do...


INSKEEP: ...Or boo. You can boo if you want to do that. Our political editor Domenico Montanaro is still with us. Domenico, how big an issue have college costs been in the campaign?

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Well, look, it's the top issue for millennial voters certainly. I mean, the cost of college and student loans have skyrocketed over the last two decades. It's an issue that Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton hotly debated, these birth-to-death issues and caring-for issues are things that are bread-and-butter Democratic issues. Hillary Clinton has a detailed plan on how she wants to try to make college more affordable. Donald Trump, on the other hand, has talked about being critical of the federal government profiting off of student loans. He'd rather have private banks do that, and he wants to eliminate the Department of Education, which grants Pell Grants. And that, you know, could favor more of those students who, you know, after they graduate, make more money.

INSKEEP: Now, since you said birth-to-death issues, let's hear another Levittown resident, Kristen McClellan (ph), who's executive director of an assisted living community.

KRISTEN MCCLELLAN: My struggle with just helping people in my situation is whether or not they have the funds. Our industry is entirely private pay. So it's not something the Medicare pays for. It's not something the Medicaid pays for. You know, you either have the money or you don't. And we're starting to hit the end of the era that had all that old money and had all those great stocks and bonds and into the early, you know, the early baby boomers.

INSKEEP: And they don't have...

MCCLELLAN: They have nothing.

INSKEEP: Because pensions have been eroding for several decades now and people are now retiring who maybe spent their pension during the recession or something like that.

Some of you in this room also put retirement costs as a major economic concern. And Marion Orr is with us. He's with Brown University here in Providence. How's the squeeze on pensions affect this region where the cost of living is so high?

MARION ORR: Well, the issue has been a big issue here in Rhode Island, in particular around public sector retirees and their pensions. In fact, our current governor was the former treasurer, and she became very popular because she pushed a pension reform that saved pensions but also cut cost-of-living adjustments.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK, so people have less money. Now that's really relevant here because we also heard - as we traveled around from Jersey City, N.J., there we met Sam Roy (ph). She's an immigrant of Indian descent, married and a mother of one.

SAM ROY: Health care - yes, that's my number one issue with health care 'cause when I was unemployed I tried to get Obamacare and it was still a lot because, you know, I work with a lot of individuals that are impoverished. So they do get Medicaid and Medicare pays for everything but what about the middle class 'cause I'm working now. And then I pay a premium, then I have to pay a co-pay on top of that and a deductible. So it's a lot.

INSKEEP: Here's where this is relevant, Marion Orr. We have a situation where she is a state employee - the state of New Jersey - and they're raising the health care costs for state employees and talking about squeezing things more and squeezing the pensions as well. Now, in Jersey City, we also met Frida Jones (ph) who was in a park contemplating the Manhattan skylines - gorgeous. She is middle class, but as a divorced mom, she often hasn't felt that way.

FRIDA JONES: And I work but it is almost like I was the working poor because, you know, a lot of things that I would have wanted, you know, my kids to do cost - OK, you know, after care costs, transportation costs. And, you know, for - I think I make a pretty decent, you know, salary.

INSKEEP: What do you do for a living?

JONES: Well, I work for Verizon...


JONES: ...But even with that.

INSKEEP: Domenico Montanaro, our political editor, are we hearing the kinds of frustrations that have driven this presidential campaign?

MONTANARO: You certainly are, and it's coming down to a lot between blue-collar jobs and professionalization. And as you noted, for all the evidence - the economic evidence that we're no longer in a recession - unemployment lowest since the late 1990s - people are still struggling especially because wages have flatlined.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Domenico Montanaro. We also heard from Marion Orr of Brown University, the view from the Northeast, and we're about to hear once again from Pedrito Martinez here to take us out.

PEDRITO MARTINEZ: (Playing drums). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.