Wednesday was a difficult day for The American Independent News Network, which is the larger entity that operates The Iowa Independent. Our chief executive and founder announced two of our sister sites would close and their content would be moved to The American Independent.
Year in Review: Stories that will continue to impact Iowa in 2010
Although the 12th chime of the clock on Jan. 1 may symbolically indicate a clean slate ripe with new opportunities, many of Iowa’s political perceptions and most difficult challenges will still be waiting in the new year. In fact, many of the state’s most pressing issues are ones that have worsened as lawmakers, community leaders and advocacy groups either failed to find common ground solutions or simply viewed the obstacles as too immense.
Amid the excitement of a new decade, the unresolved issues of 2009 and other years past are becoming more irksome and in need of solutions.
The Road to Recovery … or Not
The entire country watched in June 2008 as flood waters savaged downtown Cedar Rapids. The videos and pictures of the Cedar River overtaking downtown structures, destroying businesses and displacing residents were simultaneously heartbreaking and striking. Yet for every headline garnered by Cedar Rapids, another smaller Iowa town was left to cope with its own slow and tedious recovery without the benefit of national news crews.
State officials have argued that all that could be done was done. They tout Iowa’s swift recovery, comparing the progress here to natural disaster recovery in other parts of the country. Yet even now families remain displaced, businesses are shuttered and Iowans, long known as America’s most politically intense residents, are becoming more and more disenchanted with government as a whole.
The few times that national cameras panned away from downtown Cedar Rapids, national viewers glimpsed thousands of working family homes drenched to their rooftops. Urban viewers were enchanted by footage of cows, herded onto a Vinton resident’s deck for protection from flood waters. Large portions of the residential area in the small town of Creston were damaged as a result of basement and ground-level flooding. No one can forget the images of a leveled Parkersburg following a May 2008 tornado. Many of the aftermath stories remain on public display at the state’s I-JOBS page, and much remains unfunded.
But once it is understood that the working class — farmers, nurses, shift workers, teachers and others — bore the brunt of Iowa’s disasters, it is much more easy to understand the state’s following economic downturn. Working class Iowans pay a disproportionate share of their income in state and local taxes, according to research by the Iowa Fiscal Partnership. This means that the very economic foundation of the state has been rattled by tornadoes, pounded by flood waters and then mostly left with empty platitudes of progress to bolster its continued support.
Those set aside in favor of corporate bailouts and unable to surf the tides of promised change remain disillusioned, confused and, at times, angry. Their way of life has not only been threatened, but, in many instances, decimated. Their long-held beliefs in the value of hard work, helping neighbors and self-reliance have been shaken and, for some, shattered. They no longer relate to a government that appears uncaring, and they no longer believe in political parties that provide soundbites that would be offensive if they weren’t so tired and humorous.
Iowa politics in 2010, despite being the vehicle by which reform and recovery could happen, have been regulated by those outside of Des Moines’ affluent circles to an oddity or, worse yet, a distasteful fairgrounds freak show. For when economic reality becomes too horrible, it is sometimes easier to grasp the nearest unfathomable boogyman than to confront the true monster on your doorstep.
It is in front of this backdrop of dismay and disconnect that Iowa politics will play in 2010, and it will factor into every facet of the state.
The Right to Love and Marry
In April, same-sex marriage was legalized in Iowa. As some state politicians rallied against the Iowa Supreme Court decision and others praised it, most Iowans quietly pointed to increased farm supply costs and skyrocketing health care payments.
But groups have galvanized on both sides of the issue and are preparing to continue the battles begun last year at the statehouse.
Same-sex marriage, depending on which group’s advisories you read, is either proof of society’s inevitable enlightenment or the complete downfall of all held dear. And while there are distinct minorities of Iowans on both sides of the issue who are ready to do whatever it takes to ensure that such marriages are the keystone of all action within the 2010 state legislature, many more residents are afraid that the battle over certain couples’ right to marry will overshadow the business that must take place if the state as a whole is to stand on firmer economic ground come summer.
But once your home has been washed away by flood waters, or blown apart by tornadoes, it is difficult to surmount a fight against another struggling family, traditional or non-traditional. By that same token, difficulties paying for needed prescriptions and sleepless nights worried about mortgage payments aren’t often precursors to a rising up against any perceived discrimination. It is hard to fight for anyone else, hard to stand on even preached moral principals, when the very ground beneath one’s feet remains the consistency of sand.
As a result, those who stand to lose the most by having the legislature dominated by political grandstanding on same-sex marriage could be the people who stay home, shaking their heads at a spectacle created and honed in 2010 election madness. Those who stand to gain the most — specifically, those who are paying more attention to November ballots than first quarter earnings statements — will be those who rejoice and revel in the folly.
Renewed Faith in Antitrust
Producing the nation’s food supply has always been a precarious occupation. Natural disasters, weather fluctuations and simple bad luck have historically plagued Iowa’s crop and livestock producers. It is part of the territory, and farmers have come to understand the roller coaster ride that often determines if their seasons will be profitable.
The past few years, however, a new unknown has emerged that many producers view as more threatening than those they’ve previously faced: Market concentration. Within each of the nation’s agricultural industries a few, large corporations have emerged that dominate the sector and, some producers have argued, use collusive and exclusionary tactics to drive independent and smaller operations out of business. The large corporations, on the other hand, argue that their market dominance and sheer size allow them to develop innovative techniques for smaller producers as well as lobby all farm interests before Congress.
While U.S. Supreme Court rulings and national policy have played a significant role in the changing landscape of America’s and Iowa’s agricultural sector, most producers believe the largest culprit to the woes they’re facing is lax government oversight of existing antitrust laws. And, in a move unprecedented in American history, federal agencies appear to be, if not actually siding with producers, at least willing to listen.
Throughout 2010, the U.S. departments of Justice and Agriculture will hold a series of workshops for discussions on possible anti-competitiveness in several key sectors — seed, poultry, dairy and other livestock. The first, which will focus on the seed industry, will take place in Ankeny this March. The workshops mark a significant change from “hands off” life under the George W. Bush administration, when the the U.S. Department of Justice oversaw and approved mergers between Smithfield Foods and Premium Standard Farms (2007) to create the country’s largest hog processor, between Dean Foods Co. and Suiza Foods Corp. (2002) to create the largest milk processor and between JBS and Smithfield Beef (2008) to make one of the nation’s largest cattle feeders.
The U.S. Justice Department, which appears to be making good on then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama’s pledge for more scrutiny of American agriculture, has brought in Christine Varney, a woman who built a trust-busting reputation within the Clinton administration, to lead its antitrust division. This Justice Department, unlike all of its predecessors, isn’t sitting back and waiting on an anti-trust complaint. It is willfully and meticulously investigating possibilities before formal complaints arrive.
Exactly what this means to Iowa, which maintains critical economic interest in agriculture, remains unclear. Although Iowa has fared better than other states in supporting and maintaining family farms, and has recently found the benefit of promoting smaller organic operations, the state also has strong ties to the large corporations that have now fallen under scrutiny.
Immigrating to Jobs, Congress
Census figures estimate that roughly 450,000 people over the age of 65 live in Iowa, comprising about 15 percent of the state’s total population. By the year 2030, the percentage is expected to blossom to 22.5 percent of the state’s population, or more than 650,000 Iowans over the age of 65.
It is widely known that due to Iowa’s out-migration of younger (and often brighter) residents, as well as its traditionally slow birth and immigration rate, the state is poised to lose a U.S. congressional district following the 2010 census.
What is less discussed, however, is the fact that Iowa’s rural counties are aging more rapidly than urban areas. As of the 2000 census, individuals age 65 and over comprised 20 percent or more of the population in 30 of the state’s 99 counties. Not only are all the impacted counties from 2000 rural, but the U.S. Census Bureau believes that trend will encompass 88 of the state’s counties by 2030, affecting the most rural first. At that time Iowa is expected to be the 12th oldest state in the union.
The direct and indirect impacts to the state, the tax base, local workforces and wider rural geographic health are far too complex for adequate recount in this short discussion of interest areas for 2010 and the next decade. Just in the realm of ongoing federal health reform, for instance, the implications of Iowa communities with 40 percent or more of their populations over the age of 65 — Littleport, Elk Horn, Berkley, Athelstan and Beaconsfield during the 2000 census — makes it clear that providing insurance alone won’t be nearly enough. As The Iowa Independent has documented throughout 2009 in a series of articles on rural health, those residing in rural areas are more likely to be living at or below poverty levels, with more chronic conditions, without sufficient nursing and physician access and lacking critical infrastructure needed for advances in tele- or distance-medicine that might alleviate existing inadequacies.
The 11 Iowa counties projected to maintain a percentage of older residents below 20 percent in 2030 also tell a story. The population centers in Polk, Linn, Johnson, Black Hawk, Pottawattamie, Story, Woodbury and Dallas counties are included among them. The other three — Marshall, Muscatine and Wapello — are all considered rural counties with one big difference from the rest of the state’s other rural areas. Each is home to significant immigrant populations.
At the time of the 2000 census, 12.5 percent of the populations in Marshall, Muscatine and Wapello self-identified as being either Hispanic or Latino. The latest estimates for each of the counties now lists that population demographic at above 15 percent. While this percentage compared to other states would not be considered significant, it stands out in Iowa, a state with an overall estimated percentage of persons of Hispanic and Latino origin at roughly 4 percent.
Iowans, who continue to express both outrage and compassion in the aftermath of a massive immigration raid at a Postville meatpacking plant, are only now starting to come to terms with their desire for maintaining the status quo in rural areas and the true need for a larger and younger workforce. Stephen Bloom, a journalism professor at the University of Iowa and author of a book on Postville, spoke candidly with The Iowa Independent seven months after the raid, noting that the move of slaughterhouses out of cities and into rural areas as well as mechanical advancements in the process has changed the face of rural America.
“The industry now requires a revolving door of employees because the wages are, if not minimum, then very low,” Bloom said. “The locals in these rural pockets don’t want to work for that kind of salary. The plants have this voracious appetite for hiring more and more people because a slaughterhouse worker who works for a year at the same plant is working for an extraordinary amount of time. The turnover in a year is nearly 100 percent.”
Workforce challenges in rural areas, however, are not only limited to meatpacking plants and other large factories. Iowa’s stalwart economic industry, the one most closely associated with rural life, is also beginning to feel the crunch.
At a congressional listening post in October, Clinton County dairy farmer Ben Blanchard discussed both his operation’s need for long-term younger workers and the nation’s need for comprehensive immigration reform.
“The way I feel, and I know that others may not feel the same way, but there needs to be legislation to allow [immigrants} to come over and not just on a work permit or whatever for six months,” Blanchard said, noting that short-term immigration solutions do not allow for farm knowledge and animal consistency.