Editor's note: This story is part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri's next generation in challenging times.
MEXICO, Mo. — People are out shopping Sunday afternoon in Mexico, Mo. They smile a lot, hold hands and walk through the aisles at Hickman’s, a local grocery store in the west part of town. They check out the sales across the street at Goody’s and contemplate the mums outside of Westlake ACE Hardware store.
Life seems to flow steadily in this town of just over 11,500, crossed by an old railroad and by streets called “Love,” “Mars” and “Venus.” But if you stop people on the street, they might talk about change.
Porsha Williams’ version of change looks a lot like Denmark. Williams, 34, has a friend who lives there, and they often discuss the country’s “socialism.” Maybe the U.S. can learn from that.
“The Democrats’ biggest challenge is not to force change,” she says, “but to baby step to the change.”
Williams always voted Democrat, ever since she was 18. She’s concerned about bringing the jobs and the troops back home. But mostly, she’s concerned about the environment.
A few years ago, she was diagnosed with mitochondrial myopathy, a cellular disease that can lead to muscle weakness, dementia or heart failure. The disease is rare, and although researchers haven’t come up with a definite treatment, they connected it to mutations caused by chemicals in the environment.
Williams’ 6-year-old son, Lucian, is being tested for autism. She is worried about the health care system he is going to have to deal with and about his ability to take care of himself in the future.
When asked about the country their children will inherit, people are usually optimistic. No matter how difficult the situation is now, they see an abundance of opportunities in the future. Somehow, tomorrow’s America looks stronger, has a good economy and quality, affordable education.
Brian Hale, 22, says a good education is the main factor that will condition the opportunities his three children will have. Hale himself dropped out of school when he was in the ninth grade and is now unemployed. He lives with his girlfriend, who is the mother of two of his children.
Hale will vote for Barack Obama because he thinks the president understands the struggles of the middle class and of the poor, and he’s trying to keep the jobs in the country.
Jason Hopkins, 33, a pharmacy technician, has more pragmatic reasons for voting for Obama.
“Obama represents what I care about at this point in my life,” says Hopkins, who is planning to go back to school, get his degree and move to a higher income bracket. “If I earned $1 million a year, I would vote for Romney.”
Hong Jim, a middle-aged woman from Shanghai who moved to the U.S. almost 20 years ago, doesn’t have to think her way through the qualities and the promises of the presidential candidates — she doesn’t have the right to vote. She is walking her cocker spaniel around the old courthouse building in the town square, watched over by a miniature Statue of Liberty.
In the past years, Jim saw both the U.S. and her home country change. The U.S. is no longer the one-and-only promised land it was when she first came here, she says. At the same time, Shanghai has developed to a point where she couldn’t afford living there now.
Jim hasn’t decided whom she would vote for if she had the right to.
“They both know what needs to be done,” she says. “Hopefully, after the elections, we’ll see this country and other countries grow safely.”
Change has to be brought by the people, not by Mitt Romney or Obama.
“People have to be smart. People have to be good,” Jim says. “Who’s president doesn’t really matter.”