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Four 'American Indicators' share their view of the U.S. economy — and their politics

Four "American Indicators," people who represent different parts of the economy in different parts of the country, talk about their politics as the presidential election looms.
Courtesy of Arch City Defenders, Winton Machine Company, Bhavesh Patel and the Just One Project
Four "American Indicators," people who represent different parts of the economy in different parts of the country, talk about their politics as the presidential election looms.

The pandemic throttled many parts of the American economy, just as President Biden was taking office. Since then, jobless numbers have dropped and unemployment is below 4%. Yet, a recent poll conducted by The Economist and YouGov found that more than 50% of participants felt the economy was getting worse overall. And that's important because Americans often rank the economy as a top voting issue.

All Things Considered spoke with four "American Indicators" throughout the Biden presidency, four people in different parts of the country reflecting different parts of the economy. Now that it's an election year, they spoke with NPR again — this time, to talk about their own politics.

Travel

Bhavesh Patel is a franchise hotel owner in the Northeast United States. He has voted for both President Donald Trump and President Biden — and is currently undecided.
/ Courtesy of Bhavesh Patel
/
Courtesy of Bhavesh Patel
Bhavesh Patel is a franchise hotel owner in the Northeast United States. He has voted for both President Donald Trump and President Biden — and is currently undecided.

Bhavesh Patel is a franchise hotel owner — think brands like Comfort Inn and Hampton Inn — in the Northeast United States. When he first spoke with NPR in 2021, the country was beginning to emerge from the pandemic recession. At the time, he owned seven hotels in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Illinois. In the years since, he has had to downsize.

"We sold off three properties, so we're down to four now."

He says his two sons, both in their 20s, are pursuing careers in medicine, instead of going into the family business — and Patel says he can't blame them.

"It's a tough market to be in right now." Patel says. When he graduated from college in 1990, the hotel industry "was a lucrative business. You didn't have all these rules, regulations, brand specs. But now, things have gotten tighter. It has gotten more complicated to run a hotel."

Patel says right now, high-end hotels are doing much better than the midscale places he runs. The wealth gap has continued to grow over the last few years. Between those challenges and tighter regulations, he sometimes wonders whether he should have chosen a different career.

"I don't want the government telling me how to run my business," he says. "I don't want all these different rules and stipulations out there and whatnot."

Patel calls himself a moderate Republican. He voted for former President Donald Trump in 2016, then for President Biden in 2020. And he still hasn't decided who he's going to vote for this time around.

"We will see where the campaign goes and what's to come in the next couple of months."

Housing

Lee Camp is a housing attorney in St. Louis. Aside from his concerns about high rents and limited access to housing, he'd like to see more action in terms of forgiving student loans.
/ Courtesy of Arch City Defenders
/
Courtesy of Arch City Defenders
Lee Camp is a housing attorney in St. Louis. Aside from his concerns about high rents and limited access to housing, he'd like to see more action in terms of forgiving student loans.

Lee Camp is a housing attorney in St. Louis. In his city, he says, rents keep increasing and the availability of housing is decreasing.

"I'm certainly not hearing anyone in the renter space, particularly the low-income renter space, excited about the direction of the economy," he says.

Things have improved since the summer of 2021, when he first spoke with NPR. At the time, his office's phones were being inundated with people asking for housing assistance, as a pandemic moratorium on evictions ended. In 2024, he says it's still a tumultuous time.

"What is extremely unfortunate at this point is that the eviction filings themselves are as high as I've ever seen them in my career."

According to the Eviction Lab, which tracks eviction filings, there were 1,288 eviction filings in the past month, 124% of average filings for the same month before the pandemic.

"It certainly worries me that still our most vulnerable individuals — that's renters that are low-income individuals — are experiencing homelessness, that they're really still having a tough time and that systems like the courts and evictions are still dominating their narrative and their experience of the economy right now."

Now, he is encouraged that more of his clients are working or finding new jobs than they were during the pandemic. But Camp points to high consumer prices as an ongoing worry.

"On the flip side, everything just seems more expensive for [my clients] as well," he says. "And I certainly personally feel that too."

Camp says he and his wife can afford the increase in cost of groceries, but they still feel the extra burden. And Camp says there's another thing on his mind when it comes to the economy.

"One thing that's been substantially changing is the resumption of student loan payments. I love my career. I love that I get to serve people and work alongside so many inspiring and amazing individuals. But the loan payments are back, and that has certainly changed our financial picture in our household."

He adds, "I would encourage [the Biden Administration] to go further, particularly if they get the option to do so in a second term."

Food

Brooke Neubauer is the founder and CEO of The Just One Project, the largest distributor of groceries to at-risk individuals in Nevada. She'd like to see a president who will invest in social services.
/ Courtesy of The Just One Project
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Courtesy of The Just One Project
Brooke Neubauer is the founder and CEO of The Just One Project, the largest distributor of groceries to at-risk individuals in Nevada. She'd like to see a president who will invest in social services.

When Brooke Neubauer, founder of the Just One Project, the largest distributor of groceries to at-risk individuals in Nevada, looks at the economy today, she says there are plenty of jobs, but "what I'm hearing from my clients is that the wages have not caught up with the cost of living."

Nevada has the second-highest grocery prices in the nation, behind California, with an average of nearly $300 spent on groceries per week.

"For our clients that are coming in, they're saving on average $250 to $300 a month with us, and they're able to get dairy and produce, meats and poultry and all the things that you and I would get at the store."

Neubauer points to systemic issues that make it difficult for people to access food, like food deserts, grocery stores pulling out of lower-income neighborhoods and the closure of hundreds of Family Dollar locations across the country.

The Just One Project serves about 20,000 people a month. At the peak of the pandemic, the organization was serving about 58,000 people a month, nearly three times as many. And over the years, their organization has felt the rising cost of food, as she told NPR in 2023.

"Purchasing millions of pounds a year of food, our grocery bill has gone up tremendously, and for us, we purchase in such large quantities, it's hitting us pretty hard."

When it comes to politics, she wants a president who will invest in social services, particularly for people like her clients.

"I'm not a fan of a president who is unkind," she says. "And look, I spend my life's work trying to make the world a better place. I spend my time as a mom teaching my kids to be kind and inspiring them to be loving. I couldn't bear to vote for a presidential candidate that was not aligned with my values."

Neubauer has voted for both Democrats and Republicans in the past, and she says she has an open mind when going to the polls. But she's decided on this election.

"I just can't fathom that Donald Trump is the best thing that we have come up with to run for president."

Manufacturing

In Georgia, Lisa Winton, co-founder of Winton Machine Company, sees herself as a pocketbook voter – not just for herself, but for the 40 people her company employs.

"I have those 40 people to think about and I have their families to think about, and then I have my vendors to think about," she says. "So it's hard not to think about those fiscal policies."

Winton says last year, the economy looked good — her company had their best year by 20%, a banner year. As a result, she says her company had looked into opening a second factory, but her lease on her current space nearly doubled, and they had to put those plans on hold.

Winton considers herself "fiscally conservative and socially liberal," which puts her in a frustrating spot.

"I am not a party voter. I vote for a candidate based on fiscal policies and also based on some social policies as well."

Asked which candidate she thinks will get her vote, she answers, "I am so torn. I don't know yet."

"I'm not happy with the current administration," she says. "I'm not happy with a lot of policies that have been enacted. But I'm also, on a social standpoint, not happy with some policies."

Ultimately, Winton wants to see a moderate candidate in the White House, and she doesn't feel that either of the options in front of her fit that description.

"Like so many other voters, I feel like there has to be a better solution."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
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