Indianapolis has two sides

Studs Terkel, Chicago’s great oral historian, tells a wonderful story about the skewed way tourists have of experiencing his town. Terkel says that whenever he asks someone who’s visiting for a convention or a vacation what they think of Chicago, their response is almost always the same: “It’s great,” they say, “just look at that lake!”

All cities have what amounts to split personalities. On one side of the coin is the face that cities show to the world — a playground of grown-up attractions ranging from big league sports to fine dining. The stuff that downtown dreams are made of.

But, as Terkel points out, there’s another, much larger side to every city. It’s a side that tourists tend to miss. That’s the everyday side, the city where people actually live.

Indianapolis is no exception to this rule. We take justifiable pride in the job we’ve done of turning our downtown into an attractive destination. Conventioneers love us, which is a good thing: The convention business has become one of this city’s most lucrative sources of revenue. We’d be hard-pressed without it. Indianapolis, we like to say, is an affordable city. People can get more for their money here than they can in a lot of other places. Where else can you park downtown for a buck and a half?

It turns out, though, that for a lot of us, Indianapolis has another side. According to a new study by the Brookings Institution, if you’re broke, Indianapolis is one of the most expensive places to live in the United States. The Brookings study puts some meat on the bones of that old cliché that while the rich tend to get richer, the game is rigged to put the poor farther and farther behind.

In this case, we’re talking about working families that earn less than $30,000 a year. Nationally, Brookings found that they’re paying an estimated $6.5 billion a year on extra costs for basic services and transactions. These include high-cost loans, exorbitant rates for car insurance and inflated grocery prices.

In Indianapolis, about 25 percent of loans taken out by low-income families are considered high-cost. This ranks us No. 1 for the 12 metro areas that Brookings studied. High cost loans amount to a kind of legal loan sharking. For $400, a borrower might pay $57 every two weeks. Compounded over a year, interest would be $1,482.

Indianapolis has the second highest number of rent-to-own furniture and appliance stores of the cities studied, roughly one for every 20,000 of us. At a rent-to-own store, you can walk out of the place with a $200 television set; the trouble is that $200 set will wind up costing you $700 over 18 monthly payments.

The biggest disparity found in the Brookings study related to grocery stores. The average grocery store in an Indianapolis low-income neighborhood is one-fourth the size of stores found in more upscale parts of town. It’s not unusual for these smaller stores to charge more for food and other items. This bite can act like a double whammy in that people, in order to avoid the high prices being charged where they live, will often travel unreasonable distances — say, from the Southside to the Northside — to get their food, which winds up burning more money still for gas or other transportation costs.

This situation can lead to even greater costs downstream. A study released last week by LaSalle Bank in Chicago found that low-income people living in so-called “food deserts,” neighborhoods where fast food is more plentiful than grocery stores, are more likely to die prematurely from diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease and obesity. The study found that 11 out of every 1,000 people in neighborhoods with the worst food access die of cardiovascular disease; that number was reduced to six out of 1,000 in neighborhoods where people had access to more and better groceries.

The diabetes death rate for people without access to wholesome and affordable groceries was 1.27 per 1,000, compared with .56 per 1,000 in neighborhoods where food options were plentiful.

There’s a temptation, I know, when confronted with information like this to shake one’s head and wonder how it is that people let themselves get into these pickles. No one forces somebody to rent that sofa or that bed. No one makes another person opt for a bag of fries instead of an apple. In a sense, I suppose you could say that the prevalence of predatory services in Indianapolis is a kind of tough love, a de facto system of disincentives intended to goad people into pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.

But what do you do when your bootstraps are busted? When the medical bills for your sick kid are adding up and they’ve cut the insurance plan at work and your car’s broken down and, by the way, the boss just called you in to say that they won’t be needing your job anymore.

That’s when you start seeing another side of the city that maybe you thought you knew. That’s when you find out where you really live.




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