High atop the corner of El Camino Real and Harbor Boulevard in Belmont, the neon sign for The Lariat Tavern has, for more than 60 years, welcomed weary and thirsty travelers from across the county and around the world.
Now a sports bar with multiple big screen TVs, The Lariat draws both nightly regulars and cheering crowds for major sporting events. It’s the sort of place one can find mix of working and middle class folks, from all ethnicities and backgrounds.
Not frequented by elite techies or high-wealth hipsters, The Lariat’s patrons are willing to give unvarnished opinions about the world, politicians, local sports teams or just about anything else. That’s why I’ve spent some time talking with them about what’s on their minds during this election year.
From The Lariat’s customers’ point of view, it’s still a rough and rocky time. While unemployment in San Mateo County is low and incomes are up, the rising tide has yet to lift all boats. They see Silicon Valley engineers and coders making bigger and bigger bucks, but that increase in wealth has yet to extend to everyone.
As Dennis, 51, a cook, puts it, “Rents are too damn high,” and they’re going higher. He’s concerned about how working people can afford to stay in the area, particularly since extended unemployment benefits are ending. Adding to his angst is the high cost of Obamacare coupled with high deductibles. For him, $95 a month is a huge hit and, with the high deductibles, he’ll barely be able to afford the mandated insurance. He’s thinking about just paying the fine and going without.
Elaine, 35, a home health care entrepreneur, echoes the concerns over the cost of Obamacare. She sees that her clients are paying significantly more for health insurance and that their co-pays are increasing as well. “How is that affordable?” she said, adding, “I don’t see the benefit.”
Another patron, Kavita, 43, who works in mergers and acquisitions, also brings up Obamacare implementation issues. She knows people who have signed up for Covered California plans yet were denied treatment by a local hospital, which claimed there was no record of their coverage.
Some people take a longer view. John, 45, a bartender, is concerned about the fate of Social Security. He asks, “Will we even have it? Won’t it run out by the time I retire?” His brash manner belies real concern over how long he may be required to work, especially since saving is difficult for him, as he must care for his aging mother.
Nate, 35, works in financial services and is a musician. His work experiences point toward concerns over the state of education. He’s worried that high school graduates have not learned the basics of personal financial education. For him, all graduates should know the basics of credit, how debt can deeply affect one’s life, and what can result from poor financial decision-making. “Arm students with knowledge,” he said, “it will keep them from becoming a slave to debt.”
Mike, 48, and a sales rep, is also concerned about how schools are failing our students. His concerns center on a decline in teaching respect for hard work and personal responsibility. He asks, “Whatever happened to the values of working for a living?” and wonders how can our nation survive, “with so many now accustomed to handouts as a way of life.”
Mike voices a common theme — politicians simply don’t care about working, middle class Americans. He asks, “Can we really change anything?” and suggests, “People have just given up.” Elaine also brings up that issue, bemoaning the lack of “strong leaders” who “tackle issues.” She refers to the recent federal government shutdown saying that, “it made us look weak to the world.”
Jessica, 29, sums it up, “I don’t even like to vote, what’s the point? It’s not about us, there’s no real choice. Greed runs the world. I hear it from my customers all the time; they’re worried about the future for them and their kids.”
The plural of anecdote is not data; these stories are indicators of concern and not scientific polls. However, a wise local politician would be smart to address the views from The Lariat and not just listen to the Silicon Valley bio and tech elite.
Correction: Last week I wrote that 38 million Californians live in poverty. That is the number of residents; the number in poverty is 9 million.
John McDowell is a longtime county resident having first moved to San Carlos in 1963. In the intervening years, he has worked as a political volunteer and staff member in local, state and federal government, including time spent as a press secretary on Capitol Hill and in the George W. Bush administration.