Gov. Mike Pence’s office gave itself a pat on the back, but the pat should have been halfhearted.
The news the Pence administration touted was about jobs. Indiana’s unemployment rate dropped in July – down to 4.7 percent, which is below the national average and well below the 5.8 percent jobless rate the state recorded just a year ago.
The employment surge pushed the state to a historic high when it came to the number of Hoosiers working – 2,614,800 people in Indiana now have jobs. That broke the old record, which had been set more than 15 years ago in March of 2000.
Some of the success can be attributed to population growth, but it’s still great to see an increasing number of the state’s citizens have steady incomes.
That’s the good news.
The not-so-good news is that Indiana still lags well behind the national average when it comes to household income. We also trail three of the four states surrounding us – and the fourth, Kentucky, has gained ground on us in the past 15 years. Some economic indicators place us in the bottom 20 percent of states when it comes to average income and other wage factors.
The state also has seen the income gap – the chasm separating the “haves” from the “have-nots” – grow wider than it has in most other states.
That has given rise to at least two tragic trends.
The first is that much of the swell in these job numbers comes from formerly middle class Hoosiers who are doing anything to hold on. The Indiana Institute for Working Families reports that, even in this time of increasing employment, the number of Hoosiers plummeting out of the middle class continues to climb. Think of it as the American dream in free fall.
The second trend – even more tragic – is how hard this widening wage disparity has hit the most vulnerable members of the Hoosier family.
The Indiana Youth Institute’s Kid Count Data Book 2015 reports that 22 percent of the state’s children – just under one in four Indiana kids – now live in poverty.
That’s hardly a reason for backslapping.
What all of this tells us is that Indiana is attracting a lot of jobs, but they often aren’t jobs that provide a living wage. More and more Hoosiers work harder and harder but fall further and further behind.
And, as bad as all this is for them, what makes it even worse is that many of them – too, too many – know that, no matter how hard they work, they cannot provide lives of security and some comfort for their children.
Indiana’s plan for economic growth has been pretty basic. We do the “Field of Dreams” approach in reverse. We believe that, if we don’t build it, they will come. We lower taxes and cut government services in the hopes that businesses will see Indiana as the cheapest option.
There are two problems with that.
The first is that many of these businesses now seem to be choosing Indiana because they see our labor supply as the cheapest option – and they pay our people less than they otherwise would.
The second is that we’re seeing the limits of that strategy. The shutdown of I-65 north of Indianapolis has produced complaints from trucking companies and other businesses about increased costs and lost productivity.
Apologists for Mike Pence argue that I-65’s shutdown can’t be laid at the governor’s feet because his administration has spent money on roads.
That argument would be more persuasive if the Pence administration didn’t seem to view regulation and government oversight of everything but people’s private lives as a sin.
More Hoosiers now are working – and that’s a good thing.
But as long as we have an alarming number of our fellow citizens falling out of the middle class and roughly one out of every four Hoosier children lives in poverty, I don’t think we have any reason to say “well done” or “mission accomplished.”
We can throw a party when their lives are better.
But not before then.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.