News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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January 31, 2013

MARK BENNETT: America’s best quality of life? Indiana must address flaws, set priorities

Just as the job interview seems smooth, the interviewer drops the question.

“So, where do you see yourself in five years?”

Witty, sarcastic folks must use restraint at that moment. “Anywhere but here” would not be a wise response.

Impossible as it is to make such a prediction, this routine question holds relevance. Its answer reveals whether the applicant has a plan to improve his or her life beyond buying a bigger TV.

So, Indiana, where do you see yourself in five years?

Eighteen months ago, the governor of Iowa announced a plan to put that fellow Midwestern state atop one of the nation’s most comprehensive quality-of-life barometers — the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index — within five years. In announcing the Healthiest State Initiative, Gov. Terry Branstad aimed to “assist Iowans in learning about and applying proven methods to live longer, happier and healthier lives.”

Branstad’s Republican counterpart in Indiana, newly inaugurated Gov. Mike Pence, should formally challenge the People of the Corn. Pence hinted at such an objective in the closing remarks of his first State of the State address last week, saying, “We can put Hoosiers back to work and make Indiana first in job creation, first in education, and first in quality of life.” Perhaps the last goal just sounded good, a slice of soaring political rhetoric. As I noted in a column last week, those first two goals — job creation and education — are tangible. “Quality of life” requires definition.

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index does just that, with scientific research updated daily.

Trib-Star readers offered their definitions of quality of life, as I requested in that column. So did Gov. Pence’s office.

We’ll start with him.

“The governor has repeatedly called for good jobs, great schools, safe streets, and strong families. Together, those represent the quality of life he wants to see for all Hoosiers,” Kara Brooks, Pence’s press secretary, stated in an email response.

Each element indeed brightens lives. Still, in his address, Pence listed job creation (as in “good jobs”) and education (as in “great schools”) separately, and then added “quality of life.” To consider the latter distinctly from the quantity of jobs and excellent schools, we’ll presume Pence sees safe streets and strong families as his top criteria for quality of life.

The Well-Being Index includes a longer list. It asks Americans in 50 states to evaluate their current life situation and their future, five years out; emotional well-being; physical health, from sick days at work to pain, energy levels, obesity and disease history; healthy behaviors (smoking, eating fruits and veggies, and exercise); work environment (job satisfaction, maximizing skills, treatment by your boss and co-workers, and a level of trust); and basic access to clean water, safe places to exercise, those fruits and veggies, income to buy groceries, health care, indications the community wants progress, and being able to safely walk alone at night).

“These are really good categories that would be a good framework for a quality of life,” said Kelly Motley, spokesperson for Gallup-Healthways.

The Well-Being Index, she added, “shines a light on the problems of a society.”

Indiana has some problem areas. In overall well-being, the Hoosier state ranked near the bottom, 38th. The state’s lowest marks came in emotional health (43rd), physical health (43rd) and healthy behaviors (45th). Indiana also rated in the bottom half in life evaluation (38th) and basic access to necessities (29th). Our only top-half category among the 50 states was work environment, at 21st, and that probably would be higher if the other troubling areas improved.

Iowa, fared much better (19th overall), yet Branstad took seriously his state’s problems exposed by the index.

Indiana should too. Imagine the transformation in myriad aspects, including economically, if Hoosiers enjoyed America’s best physical and mental health, and greatest access to clean water and air, affordable produce and food, and safe places to jog or walk alone — even at night. Imagine if the state ranked 17th in per-capita income (as it did in 1965) instead of 37th (as it does now), with low child-poverty rates (instead of 20 percent). Indiana should not accept bottom-half in any of these. Public policymakers should address these, just as they trumpet job-creation numbers and thinly  tested school reforms. Power brokers in Indianapolis should study why Branstad and Iowans made “quality of life” such a priority.

Indiana has plenty of pluses to build upon. Some readers answered my column’s callout last week for their definitions of “quality of life.” Those from a trio of retired Wabash Valley residents were particularly insightful and poignant.

Lea Reyher-Long of Terre Haute compiled five quality-of-life ingredients. “1. Great faith — in God and in fellow human beings; being satisfied with life as it comes [in] good and/or hard times. 2. A roof overhead, a warm place to live, and enough to eat. 3. Being able to help those less fortunate. 4. Knowing my children are well educated, have homes of their own, good jobs and are well and happy. 5. Living in a free country, not perfect, but the greatest country in the world.”

Beautifully said.

For the Tribbles, a retired Clay County couple, a move back to the Wabash Valley after six years in Florida enhanced their appreciation of the amenities here. “It was becoming so crowded in Fort Myers that you seemed to be closed in everywhere you went. Here in the Wabash Valley, there is plenty of room, the air is fresh, crime rate more reasonable than in Florida, and the main thing is the driving habits. I know there are still bad drivers around the Terre Haute area, but in Fort Myers it was just almost a game to see who could run the most stop signs or red lights.” They added, “Everything considered, this is a great area to live in.”

Dorothy Jerse of Terre Haute saw similar positives here, and added a reminder. “As a retired couple, we think our quality of life in Terre Haute is about perfect — low cost of living, friendly people, four seasons, no big-city traffic — I could go on and on,” Jerse said. “However, there are several flaws with which I have a hard time — the number of people living in poverty with children going hungry, the number of people with no jobs or with jobs with no benefits, the substandard housing. … As long as I am sharing life in the community with these people who are suffering, I can’t say I’m ‘livin’ the dream.’ I am often told it is this way everywhere, but I strongly disagree.

“Just look at the statistics,” she said.

The governor, lawmakers and local communities can take a page from Iowa, form a five-year plan and change the realities behind those statistics.

Indiana, first in quality of life? It’s a matter of addressing weaknesses and setting priorities.

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

 

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