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Income Distribution

Indiana: A Snapshot of Inequality

Research & Commentary
September 08, 2016

by Sheila Kennedy

Republican Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence calls Indiana ‘a state that works.’ The facts tell a different story. 

Let me start with a few facts that should “afflict the comfortable” and motivate citizens of good will to “comfort the afflicted.”

According to the latest Census numbers, more than 1 in 3 Hoosiers remain below self-sufficiency despite increased employment, 21.5 percent of Indiana’s children live in poverty, and the number of Hoosiers in poverty consistently hovers around one million.

A 2015 report, issued by the Institute for Working Families, puts this information in an infographic that highlights what the study calls the “21st Century Job Swap,” a shift from high-skill, decent-paying jobs to low-skill, low-income work.

June data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show Indiana with a 108,400 job deficit when population growth since the recession is factored in.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation finds that Indiana ranks #30 in child well-being, having slipped two spots relative to other states since 2014.

Women are doing even worse than children: Indiana ranks dead last on a national work and family yardstick, 39th in employment and earnings, 37th in poverty and opportunity. And Indiana received a D- in the National Partnership’s Expecting Better report, “the most comprehensive analysis to date of state laws and regulations governing paid leave, paid sick days, protections for pregnant workers and other workplace rights for expecting and new parents in the United States.”

In no Indiana county can the minimum wage support even a single adult. But Indiana’s legislature has refused to raise that minimum and preempted the authority of cities and counties to do so, or to provide paid leave or enact environmental regulations. [pullquote]In 2015, Governor Pence diverted $3.5 million in anti-poverty funds to anti-abortion pregnancy centers.[/pullquote]

To add insult to injury, in 2015, Governor Pence diverted $3.5 million in desperately needed anti-poverty funds to anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers.

We could list more data points. But rather than get bogged down in the details of one state’s inability to raise living standards — an inability not unique to Indiana — we “comfortable” Americans need to ask ourselves some hard questions, beginning with one posed by economist Robert Samuelson in a recent column for the Washington Post: Is ending poverty impossible?

Samuelson begins by pointing out that neither Presidential candidate has focused on the poor. Hillary Clinton’s proposals to decrease inequality aim primarily at the middle class, and Donald Trump’s tax cuts would benefit the rich and upper middle class.

Samuelson cites two reasons for ignoring the plight of the truly poor: Poor people don’t vote (they make up a disproportionate percentage of nonvoters), and we have no national consensus on anti-poverty policies.

We can trace the lack of political will to attack poverty to attitudes about the poor and lack of faith in government.

Americans’ widespread suspicion that social welfare recipients are “playing the system” — despite reams of data to the contrary — can be traced all the way back to 15th century English Poor Laws that forbid “giving alms to the sturdy beggar.” A bastardized Calvinism reinforced the belief that people are poor because they are disfavored by God and likely morally defective. Or, to use George W. Bush’s more recent formulation when promoting his Faith-Based Initiative, the poor “lack middle-class values.”

If we ever get serious about eliminating poverty, we will need to do two things, and neither will be simple or easy. We will need to marshal armies of community organizers who can persuade poor people to vote, over the barriers put in place by legislators who would not benefit from their participation, and we will need to educate the comfortable about the reality of poverty — and especially about the plight of the millions of hard-working Americans who put in forty hours or more a week for unconscionably low wages.

Unless we can do those two things —  and fix our gridlocked political system — the poor will always be with us.

Sheila Suess Kennedy teaches law and public policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis. Her scholarly publications include eight books and numerous law review and journal articles. Kennedy, a frequent lecturer, public speaker, and contributor to popular periodicals, also writes a column for the Indianapolis Business Journal. She blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net.

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