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'Walmart moms': struggling but hopeful … and estranged from Congress

Two groups of 'Walmart moms,' a demographic studied by pollsters, gathered after the State of the Union address. Asked if politicians understand their lives, the answer was a resounding 'no.'

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One woman described her family’s decision to walk away from their mortgage and into a rental to save money. Others spoke about the cost of gas, bread, and health insurance. Eating out is rare.

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Staff writer

Linda Feldmann is a staff writer for the Monitor based in Washington.

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But life is not joyless: Instead of going out, one said, cooking dinner and watching a movie together at home can be just as fun.

Still, even if these women are, on average, hopeful about their families, they’re less optimistic about Washington. Few see an end to the partisan gridlock anytime soon. But eventually, a few said, there will be a breakthrough.

“Some things have to get done,” said Katie M., a resource manager and mother of three from Philadelphia, listing taxes and guns as areas for potential progress.

Jackie A., a consultant from Philadelphia with one child, predicts Congress will act on immigration, because of the last election. “It’s all about numbers,” she says, perhaps alluding to Republican Mitt Romney’s poor performance among Latino voters.

For many women, issues like immigration and climate change seem a bit disconnected from their daily concerns. Gun violence sparked a lively discussion, but did not produce the kind of ideological divide that shows up in Washington. Many of the gun-owners in the group supported limits or bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

In both groups, the Obama proposal that got the most animated response was universal public preschool. These are women who either have kids in or not far from their preschool years (before and after), and the idea spoke to what they see in their daily lives: that prekindergarten gives kids a leg up academically, but for many families who have no public option, private preschool is unaffordable. One woman’s mother-in-law was paying her four-year-old’s tuition.

So score one for Obama – tapping into a real-life issue. Though quickly, the women began to talk about the practical concerns of public pre-K. How would it be funded? And if it’s not full-day, how do working parents shuttle their kids around?

“What about parents without cars?” asked Colleen W., a homemaker in Kansas City.

Ardely V., also of Kansas City, commented on one of the central conundrums of today’s political debate. “We are all looking for the government to help, but then we say that government has too much control,” she said, suggesting that parents should take more responsibility in their children’s early education. “Everything interrelates.”

And what about the economy, the central political issue of the day? Obama’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.00 an hour didn’t impress the Walmart moms. That’s good for a high school student making pocket money, many said, but hardly a living wage. Some expressed concern that raising the minimum wage will put pressure on prices.

On the issue of persistent high unemployment, politicians have been talking “jobs” for so long that a lot of the women tune out.

“It’s almost like they have earmuffs on, they can’t quite hear it, they’ve heard it for so long,” says Nicole McCleskey of Public Opinion Strategies, the Republican firm. “There’s been a lot of promises, and they just haven’t seen the results.”

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