By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS – Together, Derek Thomas and Carol Rogers paint a picture that is disturbing, even scary.
Thomas is the senior policy analyst for the Indiana Institute for Working Families. Rogers is the deputy director and chief information officer for the Indiana Business Research Center.
The three of us are on the air talking about a report Thomas’ organization released on the status of Indiana working families.
John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com
The report shows Indiana as a state moving in different and, in some important ways, conflicting directions.
There is good news. The unemployment numbers have dropped, which shows that the worst of the economic downturn now seems to be in the rear view mirror.
The problem is that the recovery has been uneven. The number of Hoosiers living in poverty now is at a record high – despite the fact that there has been significant growth in the number of jobs.
“The poor are getting poorer,” Thomas says.
The why of that is troubling. While Indiana is attracting or creating a lot of jobs, too many of them don’t pay a living wage. Those jobs swell the state’s employment numbers without lifting many Hoosiers out of poverty.
This is sad and distressing news for the hundreds of thousands of individual Hoosiers who struggle to provide for themselves and their children, but it also is tragic news for the state as a whole.
The greatest growth in the number of the state’s working poor is found among those Hoosiers falling out of the middle class. They’re living the American Dream in reverse – losing their holds on lives of some comfort and security.
Thomas says the numbers show an Indiana middle class that is beginning to evaporate.
I mention that this is not a new or isolated trend.
Many economists have predicted that we are headed into a new era. Instead of an economic structure anchored by a large and thriving middle class, we instead may find ourselves living with an “hourglass economy,” one in which there are increasing numbers of people at the top and at the bottom – and relatively few in between.
I ask Rogers how our lives in this state will change if this trend continues and the hourglass takes shape.
“We don’t know,” she says and shakes her head.
The sense of concern – one that approaches panic – that many Hoosiers feel about facing this possible new world comes through in the calls and messages to the show.
One woman barks that immigrants shouldn’t be allowed to take Hoosiers’ jobs. A man sends an email saying the state’s leaders don’t care about ordinary people and just want to reward their wealthy cronies. And still another man calls to say both politicians and business leaders are more interested in breaking unions than they are about creating jobs that pay people enough to live on.
The subtext to the calls and notes isn’t hard to find: We’re scared we’re going to lose the life we’ve worked for and no one seems to care.
While we talk on the air and the nervous calls and emails come in, the leaders of Indiana’s state government indulge themselves with a paralyzing and non-productive battle to overturn the election of the state’s superintendent of public instruction. They throw themselves into divisive struggles to change the common construction wage and dabble in other union-busting measures – just a couple of years after they split the state in half in a war about a right-to-work law.
At the time of the right-to-work warfare, proponents said the law would bring new jobs to Indiana. Opponents said it would depress wages.
The evidence now seems to suggest that both sides might have been right – and that’s the problem.
Many of the fights we’re having over economic development in Indiana are products of the 1980s, 1950s or even the 1800s. While the unfolding 21st century thrusts us into an economy and an era that is likely to be Darwinian in nature – only the strong will survive, much less thrive – our leaders devote themselves to settling old scores.
As the future rushes up to meet us with all its hopes and terrors, our leaders look to drag us back into a past that continues to disappear, day by day.
And paycheck by paycheck.
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.