Indiana: A Snapshot of Inequality

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% of Indiana’s children live in poverty, and the number of Hoosiers in poverty consistently hovers around one million.

A report on the Status of Working Families in Indiana 2015, issued by the Institute for Working Families, puts the information in an Infographic including state SNAP & TANF responses to poverty, and highlighting what it calls the “21st Century Job Swap” from high & middle-paying to low-skilled, low-income jobs by industry;

June data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows Indiana with a 108,400 jobs 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 2 spots relative to other states since 2014.

Women are doing even worse than children in national rankings: Indiana is dead last in Work & Family rankings, 39th in Employment & Earnings, 37th in Poverty & 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”

Despite the fact that the minimum wage cannot support even a single adult in any county in the state, Indiana’s legislature has not only refused to raise that wage — but has preempted the authority of cities and counties to do so (or to provide paid leave, or enact environmental regulations, etc.)

To add insult to injury, in 2015, Governor Pence diverted three and a half million dollars of desperately needed TANF funds to anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers.

There is much more, but rather than get bogged down in the details of one state’s inability to raise living standards — an inability that, unfortunately, is not unique to Indiana — we “comfortable” Americans need to ask ourselves some hard questions, beginning with one posed by eminent 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. Clinton’s proposals to decrease inequality are aimed primarily at the middle class, and 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 are a disproportionate percentage of nonvoters); and there is no consensus on anti-poverty policies. (That shouldn’t come as a surprise; these days, when there is consensus on anything, that’s a surprise.)

The lack of political will to attack poverty can be traced 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 Fifteenth 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, probably because they are morally defective. (Or, to use George W. Bush’s more recent formulation when promoting his Faith Based Initiative, because 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 (despite the barriers to their votes put in place by legislators who would not benefit from their participation); and we 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 not so incidentally, fix our gridlocked political system — the poor will always be with us.