(Bloomberg) — Even when the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs play on a rainy evening, the team's signature oink cheer reverberates through the stadium and nacho porkers flow from the concession stands.
Minor league baseball at less than the cost of a movie brings out a crowd. It's a better deal for hard economic times than many fans at a recent game said they have received from their elected leaders.
"At this point, I'm not sure I'm going to vote," said Vincent Ioele, 31, a pharmaceutical company manager from Easton, Pennsylvania, watching the game with his family high in the stands. "There are too many lobbyists that are swaying the politicians. They're not helping the people as a whole."
In the Lehigh Valley, a bellwether of Pennsylvania politics within commuting range of both New York City and Philadelphia, residents say they're frustrated by the economy's weakness and anxious over where it may be headed. They express resentment of bailouts that begat bonuses for bankers while the rest of the country struggled and concern about record budget deficits.
"The economy has everybody depressed, and when people are depressed they tend not to vote unless they're angry," said Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat. "It's the conservatives who have the anger this time."
Two months ahead of November elections that will determine control of the U.S. Congress, pessimism nationwide about the direction of the country is sapping the enthusiasm of Democrats and political moderates.
A national Gallup Poll completed Sept. 5 found 50 percent of Republicans "very enthusiastic" about voting this November versus 25 percent of Democrats and 28 percent of independents. Among all registered voters, Republicans tied Democrats in voting preferences for Congress, with each party attracting 46 percent support.
When Lehigh County held local elections last November, turnout in Democratic-dominated districts plummeted to half the level of their Republican-dominated counterparts, according to an analysis by The Morning Call, a newspaper based in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
"Lehigh Valley residents are in a period of discontent," said Chris Borick, director of the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. "They're looking foranswers. There's a sense that the Democrats have yet to provide those answers."
Pennsylvania voters face major choices this year. With Rendell at the end of a two-term limit, Republican state attorney general Tom Corbett and Democrat Dan Onorato, chief executive of Allegheny County, are running to replace him. A Republican, Pat Toomey, is challenging Representative Joe Sestak for the seat of Democratic Senator Arlen Specter, who was defeated in his party's primary.
In Lehigh Valley's 15th congressional district, Republican Representative Charlie Dent is defending his seat against Bethlehem's Democratic mayor, John Callahan. Voters like Sheri McKay, an accounts payable clerk from Pennsburg married to a union pipe insulator, are questioning their allegiance to the Democrats and President Barack Obama. "He came from a middle-class working family and his wife came from that too. So I thought he would be for the middle-class family," said McKay, 43. "I haven't seen that."
Though McKay said it's been 20 years since she considered voting for a Republican, she is contemplating a vote this year for the Republican Senate candidate, Toomey. The government bailout of the banking industry is an emblem of misplaced priorities to her.
"They're the ones who did the dirty deeds, giving people adjustable-rate mortgages and saying it would be all right," said McKay, who paused to speak during a back-to-school shopping trip to a local mall with her 14-year-old daughter. "The bankers are getting $5 million bonuses. They're criminals that are living in the lap of luxury while people are wondering where their kids are going to sleep."
Feeling that the response to the recession has been inequitable is widespread. Sixty-eight percent of Americans say the policies have provided little or no help to the middle class, according to a Pew Research/National Journal poll conducted in July. Large majorities say big banks, large corporations and the wealthy have benefited.
The recession has ripped through the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania's third-largest metropolitan region, as it has the rest of the country. Unemployment climbed to 9.8 percent in June, just above the national rate, from 4.4 percent at the official start of the recession in December 2007, when it was just below the nationwide unemployment rate.
Casino Replaces Mill
Once dominated by a declining steel industry that inspired the 1982 Billy Joel anthem "Allentown," the area had rebounded. The local economy diversified as the region became a center for warehousing, electronics and suburban housing for commuters. Japanese camera-maker Olympus Corp. opened its Americas headquarters here in 2006. A closed Bethlehem Steel plant on the banks of the Lehigh River has been redeveloped as a casino operated by the Las Vegas Sands Corp.
At Donegal Square, an Irish goods store on Main Street in Bethlehem, few people are now buying gold jewelry or Waterford crystal and sales are down about 40 percent from 2007, said the owner, Neville Gardner. At the private medical center where Sue Youtz is a nurse, fewer patients are coming in for elective surgeries as they lose health insurance, Youtz said. After more than a century in Allentown, Mack Truck shut its headquarters in 2008 to move to North Carolina as part of a cost-cutting effort.
Families Feel Pinch
The martial arts academy Nathanael Verbeke opened two years ago in Easton, Pennsylvania, has struggled and is only now beginning to cover its expenses, he said.
"A lot of my clients have children, are 30 to 40 years-old, and are self-employed," said Verbeke, 27, who subsidizes his business with a job waiting tables. "Some of them have had to leave, take their children out, because their businesses have been hurt."
The gloomy outlook in Lehigh Valley reflects the travails of families nationwide. While the economy has been growing for a year, the gains in the financial markets have diverged from the experience of the broad American middle class.
Investors have benefited from an increase of more than 37 percent in the S&P 500 since Obama took office, even with a 9 percent drop in the stock index since its April 23 peak. Corporate profits have rebounded, up 65 percent by the second quarter since Obama took office and almost back to the pre-recession peak reached in 2006.
Workers have had a harder time making up lost ground. Only 723,000 jobs have been regained of the 8.4 million lost since the recession began in 2007. The national unemployment rate,which was 9.6 percent in August, has hovered near a 26-year high since last summer.
The tough job market comes on top of a decade of erosion in the purchasing power of middle-class families. During the last economic expansion, median household income never fully recovered, the first time on record that middle-class Americans were left worse off at the end of a business cycle. In 2007, the inflation-adjusted median income for working-age households was almost $2,200 lower than it was in 2000 at the end of the previous expansion, according to the U.S. Census.
With the crash in the housing market, many families are also grappling with the loss of wealth that they were able to tap during the housing boom to make up for declining real incomes. Total U.S. homeowners' equity in the first quarter was less than the half what it was four years earlier, according to the Federal Reserve.
Those economic realities have continued to shape the financial life of much of the country in the aftermath of the Obama-backed $814 billion stimulus package and the $700 billion bank bailout passed in 2008.
Only 35 percent of the country believes the stimulus helped prevent unemployment from getting worse, according to the Pew poll. The record budget deficits the federal government has run since the start of the recession has generated a backlash against spending that has helped energize conservatives.
"Stop the spending. Stop the waste," Ed Figuli, 43, a utility worker from Schnecksville, Pennsylvania, chanted in response to a question on the direction of the country."There's just been a lot of out-of-control spending."
Amy Edgar, a 43-year-old nursing instructor from Coopersburg, Pennsylvania, says America's greatness is threatened and political leaders across the spectrum aren't up to the moment. It hit her recently on her way home from a family vacation in New England.
"I drove through New York the other day thinking of Rome," Edgar said. "I wonder, what were middle-class Romans thinking 100 years before the fall? Probably what we are."