How Indiana slipped into burger-flipping poverty
Pull up a chair. I’m afraid I have bad news. In between burgers on the grill and fireworks this Labor Day weekend, try to remember when you aspired to a middle-class life. Are you there yet? Probably not. If you are like a million other Hoosiers, it’s been a Lost Decade.
You might have missed the event, and state politicians won’t ’fess up to their complicity.
Indiana’s commonly shared delusion suggests that we are one, giant middle class. We get what we earn honestly, and our toil produces safety and prosperity for our families.
Indiana is the American Dream. We’re drinking that Prosperity Kool-Aid.
If you divide Indiana incomeearners into three components, the top 20 percent stood still during the decade, which means the Great Recession mostly did not touch them. The middle 40 percent lost nearly 5 percent in income.
And the bottom 40 percent of households, mostly working folks? They lost 23.5 percent of their income. Gone. Poof.
After 21⁄2 terms of fiscal management from governors Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence, how are you doing? Sorry to break the news. You’re probably doing lousy, that’s how.
Indiana’s average worker pay ranks 42nd in the nation at $776 per week. That does not sound like much because it isn’t much.
Indiana’s spokesmodels have a different, pithy marketing campaign every month to prove how lousy it would be if you worked in Illinois.
But the average worker there earns $971 a week, just short of $10,000 more a year than his Indiana counterpart.
Of the 50,000 Hoosier jobs added in each of the last two years, more were variations of burger-flipping, just-over-minimum-wage work than in any state in the Midwest. There’s your economic recovery. If you want to gross 300 bucks a week, Indiana is a land of opportunity. It has the fifth-highest concentration of jobs in the fast-food and janitorial work in the United States.
The Center for Economic and Policy Research notes that the majority of these fast-food workers are adults, of whom 85 percent have a high school degree or more — and more than a quarter are raising children.
The proof of this reality is that Indiana’s “business climate” is an ecstatic cauldron of joy. Business owners love to pay burger-flipping wages. Have you not heard of capitalism’s joy?
But the millions in Indiana’s fast-food battalion are not part of the middle class and never will be. They are citizens of an altered state that the gentle slope downward to working poverty has produced. Evidence? The annual Status of Working Families report found that Indiana poverty increased at a faster rate than all but five states. And, more troubling, the spiral shows no signs of slowing. There are more than a million Hoosiers living in poverty, a record-breaking level. There are 2.2 million residents who are officially “low income,” meaning they earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. That is $22,980 for an individual or $47,100 for a family of four.
We are making this poverty generational — 45 percent of Hoosier children live at or below the poverty threshold. That’s higher than any neighboring state. What Indiana teaches them is how little they have a right to expect out of life.
More than 70 percent of new jobs in Indiana paid full-time wages insufficient to pull the worker out of the low-income category. We are poor because employers happily pay a median hourly wage of $15.24, less than all neighboring states except Kentucky. Indiana still has about 173,000 fewer jobs than it did before the Great Recession started in 2007.
Against that backdrop, Pence yanked $2 billion out of Hoosier wallets to bankroll as a surplus. Banks that might loan money to a state love surpluses. It shows Indiana’s thriftiness, especially when it comes to working folks.
In this case, the surplus proves mostly that Republicans are gifted hoarders. That was your money. You might have wasted it on better medical care, improved roads and bridges, and state adoption services. So the GOP saved it for you.
You should be thankful they’re so fiscally mature.
And before you ask, yes, I would like fries with that.