By John Krull TheStatehouseFile.com INDIANAPOLIS – The number stuns. Mark Fisher of the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce tells me that 19 percent of the people in Indianapolis – Indiana’s economic center – live below the poverty level. Then he talks about people who fit the definition of what the United Way calls ALICE: Asset Limited, […]
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The number stuns.
Mark Fisher of the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce tells me 19 percent of the people in Indianapolis — Indiana’s economic center — live below the poverty level.
Then he talks about people who fit the definition of what the United Way calls ALICE: Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed — basically the working poor. These folks have jobs, but struggle to pay their bills, wonder where meals will come from or how the light bill will be paid and fear that an unexpected car repair cost or medical bill will send them toppling over the edge into disaster.
The people in Indianapolis who meet the ALICE definition account for 26 percent of the population.
That means that 45 percent of the people who live in Indiana’s economic powerhouse either live in poverty or live so close to it that one bump can send them careening over the cliff.
That’s right — 45 percent, or just about every other person in the city.
Fisher, Indianapolis Business Journal reporter Hayleigh Colombo and Drew Klacik, senior researcher for the Indiana University Public Policy Institute, and I talk over the air about these numbers and what they mean.
This isn’t supposed to be happening.
Indiana’s overall unemployment rate is around 3 percent.
That’s close to what many economists would consider full employment.
Historically, full employment has been the best weapon to combat poverty.
But, now, even as the job numbers have gotten better, the poverty rates also have increased. More and more Hoosiers find themselves working hard — maybe harder than they ever have — for less and less money.
Jobs — or at least the jobs Indiana’s economy now produces — no longer are the magic bullet when it comes to the fight against poverty.
That means we must think anew about the poor and the working poor.
The stakes are high.
Fisher, Colombo and Klacik recite the consequences to society of having a portion of the population consistently in poverty — loss of productivity, increased crime rates, higher medical costs, greater rates of incarceration. Those costs can be huge and can linger for generations.
But even greater may be the costs less easily measured.
Klacik says his research revealed one constant for all Hoosiers. No matter their economic status, faith tradition or ethnic background, they all wanted better lives for their children and grandchildren than they had enjoyed.
And they’re starting to lose faith that such generational progress will be possible, much less likely.
Klacik said for decades the manufacturing industry helped make this American Dream possible. Relatively low-skilled but physically demanding jobs could move a family out of poverty and into the middle-class within a generation.
Those jobs, though, come in shorter and shorter supply.
Most of the jobs that have replaced them have come in the service industry and pay far less.
Education might be an answer but attending classes to gather the skills that might allow a person to get a higher-paying job often can mean taking time away from work.
That, in turn, means less income — a huge and often debilitating sacrifice for a family that isn’t making enough to get by as it is.
The human costs for the people involved can be devastating.
But the social costs can be even worse.
We are and have been a middle-class nation for generations. Having a huge middle-class with shared challenges and interests allowed a nation of people of disparate nationalities and faiths to live together in relative harmony.
But a city in which nearly half the population lives in or on the edge of poverty can’t truthfully be called middle-class.
We are well on our way to becoming an hourglass economy — one with a fair number of people at the top, a big number at the bottom and not much in between, holding us together.
Indianapolis is not the only city dealing with this dynamic. Nor is Indiana the only state.
Perhaps one reason so many of us scream at each other these days is that we must yell to be heard across this widening divide, the gaping chasm that separates Americans from each other.
The numbers stun.
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. Send comments to [email protected]ana.com.