The economic lives of two blue-collar voters

The Chrysler Belvidere Assembly Plant in Illinois. Two blue-collar workers in the Prairie State differ on politics, but both see college as a way to help their kids do better than they have.

Katie Soltys and her mother Jan, who just got a job at the Belvidere Chrysler plant outside Rockford, Ill.

Adam Gentry, 34, has worked at North American Tool in South Beloit, Ill., for 14 years.

Kai Ryssdal: No matter their party, candidates who are going to be on the ballot this fall -- from the top all the way down to the smallest Congressional districts -- have at least one thing in common. They want the support, they need the votes, of blue-collar workers, middle income working Americans. People still facing very real economic challenges.

Rockford, Ill., is about an hour northwest of Chicago. It's an old factory town, where a lot of the factories have closed. And where a lot of the debate is about what the government can or should do to revitalize the real economy.

From the Marketplace Wealth and Poverty Desk, Mitchell Hartman reports.


Mitchell Hartman: Jan Soltys lives with her two daughters just up the road from the Chrysler plant. Across the street: the railroad tracks that help supply the plant. The house used to be a country vet’s office. It’s got a little porch and a white picket fence. And now I’m going to go on in.

Jan Soltys: Would you like a beverage? A Coke or a ginger ale?

It’s four in the afternoon and Soltys, who’s a single mom, just got off her shift at the Chrysler plant -- in time to meet her daughters coming home from high school. There’s one more generation in the picture.

Soltys: We live with my mom.

Hartman: Is she here?

Soltys: No, she’s at work. She’s 72, and has to work full-time.

As a receptionist at the local hospital. Soltys has a B.A. and a Master’s degree, and was making over $60,000 working in HR before she got laid off a year ago.

This is Katie, her 16-year-old daughter.

Katie: It’s been very nerve-wracking because since she lost her job I was afraid she wouldn’t get another one or she would have to go back into retail, and get a job that wasn’t fit for her education and such. I did not ask her to buy me anything, I was very tight with money and stuff.

Soltys couldn’t make it on $300 a week in unemployment, and filed for bankruptcy. Then, last month, she landed a job on the Jeep assembly line.

Soltys: I’m in metal finishing. I’m not laying on the ground with a tool tightening screws. I’m actually feeling for blemishes on the steel before the cars go and get painted. It’s terribly boring.

And not all that lucrative. As a new hire she’s getting $15.78 an hour. That’s just over half what Chrysler pays workers with more seniority, who were already on the job when the UAW granted wage concessions.

Still, Soltys considers herself lucky. Three years ago, Chrysler filed for bankruptcy and the assembly lines went silent. With the government bailout and new investment from Fiat, a couple thousand workers have been brought on at the local plant. But unemployment in the area remains at 12.5 percent.

Soltys is a staunch UAW Democrat. But the further you get from people who make cars, and the plants they make ‘em in, the less well the Obama administration’s bailout of the auto industry plays. Adam Gentry is a skilled metal worker at North American Tool. It’s a nonunion plant making custom machine parts in South Beloit, Ill.

Adam Gentry: I mean, you’ve got multi-billion dollar companies getting help, and there’s people losing their houses, can’t feed their families. So it definitely makes you raise an eyebrow.

Gentry’s 34. He briefly attended college and then took a job here in his early 20s. During the recession, his hours were cut and his 401(k) fell by half. Now, he’s back to full-time pay.

Gentry: Obviously, there’s things we’ve wanted for years that we couldn’t come up with the money to get. I’m actually looking at buying a new Harley, so...

Give that man his Harley, or at least enough confidence to part with the down payment, and you might just have his vote. Gentry’s a Republican, though so far he doesn’t trust any of the candidates to create jobs and cut the deficit, or help him launch his 12-year-old son to do better financially than he has.

Gentry: I think definitely you gotta have a cap on college tuition. That’s something I’m lookin’ at right now, and every year it seems like it just goes up and up and up and up and up and up.

Back at the Soltys house, Katie says she’s definitely going to college. She and her mom both see it as crucial to getting ahead in the world, though paying the bill seems ever more remote.

Katie: It’s around $26,000 for in-state. I really worry about that. I’m very much hoping to get grants and student aid so I don’t have to take out loans.

I asked mom Jan if she can help.

Soltys: I’m still paying on my student loan for my Master’s. So I hope to be able to help her. But after the bankruptcy and living on $300 a week for so long, no, I don’t have a thing put away.

And at this point, making $15.78 an hour at the "new" Chrysler, she doubts she’ll ever make up the ground she lost in the Great Recession.

I’m Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

Katie Soltys and her mother Jan, who just got a job at the Belvidere Chrysler plant outside Rockford, Ill.

Adam Gentry, 34, has worked at North American Tool in South Beloit, Ill., for 14 years.

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