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January 24, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Pondering what is meant by ‘quality of life’ to Hoosiers

TERRE HAUTE — Sometimes it’s sincere. Other times, it’s sarcasm.

You cross paths with a friend, ask how they’re doing, and they say, “Ah, just livin’ the dream.”

Livin’ the dream. What exactly does that involve? Can it be defined?

Indiana’s new governor, Mike Pence, closed his well-prepared first State of the State address Tuesday night with a comment that challenges Hoosiers — including Pence — to define that concept.

“This is Indiana’s moment,” Pence said, at the tail end of a half-hour speech that touted his proposed 10-percent income tax cut, an expansion of the still-fledgling school voucher program, and upgraded vocational training in high schools. “We can put Hoosiers back to work and make Indiana first — first in job creation, first in education, and first in quality of life.”

Categories 1 and 2 seem pretty clear. In the first, existing employers expand operations and hire more people, while incoming businesses set up shop in Indiana and generate new jobs. In the second, kids reach their learning potential in vibrant, well-resourced K-through-12 schools, and further bloom in high-caliber colleges and technical training institutes. In both cases, the methods of achieving those goals stir constant debate, but the target remains reasonably obvious.

Then comes Category 3 — America’s best “quality of life.”

With job creation and education as separate considerations, what other criteria make up a great “quality of life,” or — in everyday terms — that feeling of “livin’ the dream”?

For some, cheap taxes alone amount to a dream come true, and that perk enhances all else in their world. If so, Pence’s idea to shrink Indiana’s already low individual income tax rate to 3.06 percent from 3.4 percent may single-handedly do the trick. After all, as the governor emphasized, by enacting his tax cut, “It will be official: Indiana will be the lowest taxed state in the Midwest. Companies who are here will have one more reason to expand and will give businesses outside Indiana one more reason to move to the Hoosier state.”

But that sounds more like Category 1, job creation.

One common quality-of-life element gets mentioned less by Indiana’s leaders than by typical Hoosiers — income levels. The state is far from first in the nation in those rankings. Indiana rates 31st in median household income — the combined incomes of adults living in one home. Indiana ranks 37th in per-capita income — a figure calculated by dividing the total income in a geographic area by the population, counting everybody.

Median household incomes here are $46,438, just 91.9 percent of the national figure of $50,502. In 2007, we ranked 30th. In 2004, 26th. In 2002, 23rd. The last time Indiana topped the national median household income was 1997 through ’99, according to an essay by Indiana economist Morton Marcus. From 1984 to 2011, Hoosier inflation-adjusted median household incomes rose 0.2 percent, while U.S. rates climbed 0.4 percent.

In per-capita income, Indiana ranked 17th in 1965, 33rd in 2000, according to a 2002 Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute report, “Indiana Is Falling Behind.” Again, the latest figures rank the state 37th. That report from 11 years ago stated the “national and international economy has changed fundamentally in the past 40 years. Indiana — by the standard of our citizens’ incomes and wealth — has not.”

Quality of life goes beyond incomes, in many folks’ definitions. A 2009 study by Gallup and the disease management company Healthways considered not only median incomes, but also poverty rates, life expectancy, and survey answers on life satisfaction, work quality, healthy behavior, physical health, emotional health and basic access to food and shelter, according to Forbes magazine.

To his credit, Pence acknowledged the state’s 22-percent child-poverty rate (which is persistently higher in Terre Haute), aptly calling it “heartbreaking” and “unacceptable,” and cited plans to assist kids in those situations and provide early childhood education to steer them away from continuing that cycle. If Indiana wants the nation’s finest quality of life, child-poverty reduction efforts must succeed.

Is a long life your idea of livin’ the dream? Indiana rates 35th in life expectancy, averaging 77.7 years.

Maybe it’s a healthy and contented family, peaceful relationships, clean air, clean water, low crime, good restaurants, quality state parks, safe places to hunt and fish, highways that aren’t crumbling, or a job that utilizes your full abilities.

The governor may have his own definition of “quality of life.” His view matters because he’s the chief policymaker.

But beyond an economy with peak job creation and top-notch educational opportunities, what does quality of life amount to for you? What would your “livin’ the dream” be? Send me an email response to the address below. (Just emails, please. And be sincere; sarcasm spoils the dream.)

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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