News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 22, 2013

New Census data details poverty’s impact in Indiana, Wabash Valley

More and more, it’s children, not elderly, living in poverty

Dianne Frances D. Powell
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Hoosier families continue to struggle as Indiana saw large declines in income in the last 12 years, new data released last week by the United States Census Bureau showed.

Indiana’s median household  income declined 13.2 percent from 2000-2012, according to the 2012 American Community Survey. In 2000, the median household income (in inflation-adjusted dollars) in Indiana was $54,135. In 2011, it was down to $47,214. It was $46,974 in 2012.

Other states in the union — Georgia, Michigan, Mississippi and Tennessee — also saw large income declines, according to the report.

Experts say that many people who relied on manufacturing jobs for decent wages took a hit when companies moved jobs overseas or increasingly relied on automated machines, replacing labor.

“Hoosiers have been disproportionately hit because we are disproportionately” dependent on manufacturing, said Robert Guell, Ph.D., economics professor at Indiana State University.

The Census data also show that household income in the nation stayed about the same in recent years.

In 2012, the median household income in the nation was $51,017, which was “not statistically different in real terms” from 2011’s $51,100, the Census report said.

“Household income nationally in inflation-adjusted terms, have been in decline or flat since the great recession that started in 2008,” Guell said.

“Job opportunities for people at the relatively low end of the income scale have remained largely stagnant for several years,” he added.

This rings true for wage labor workers who continue “to find it tough sledding,” Guell, who has researched on issues such as minimum wage, poverty, welfare and income inequality, said.

“There are a lot of people hurting very badly. For people at the bottom of the income scale, there is only tunnel. There is no light at the beginning or end of it,” he said.

In the short term, Guell said, there is no lever that politicians can “switch” to make the situation better but suggests that people get an education and acquire the skills that the current marketplace requires.

The face of the poor

Poverty numbers also remained unchanged.

There were 46.5 million people living at or below the poverty line nationwide, according to the Census Bureau. The national poverty rate last year was 15 percent.

These figures are not “statistically different” from the 2011 numbers, according to the Census report “Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012,” which was released last week.

Curtis Skinner, director of family economic security at the National Center for Children in Poverty, said that the nation is seeing historically high poverty rates, which is “a little disturbing.”

The number of people who are poor is “higher than it has been,” Skinner said, compared to previous decades.

Skinner also pointed out that the poverty rate remained “stuck” in previous years despite the U.S. economy’s slow growth.

“Since 2010, we’ve been stuck at the same poverty rate ... which is historically high,” Skinner said.

In Indiana, the poverty rate was at 15.6 percent last year, a little higher than the national rate. In Vigo County, however, it was 19.9 percent.

But perhaps more important than the numbers is the answer to the question, who makes up that 15 percent?

“In Vigo County, it’s going to be made up of women and their children,” said Dr. Tom Steiger, professor of Sociology at Indiana State University.

One of those women is Terre Haute resident Misty, a mother of two.

She described herself as unemployed and relient on welfare, living with her mother at a house along 14th Street in the heart of Terre Haute.

“It’s extremely hard,” Misty said as she stood outside her house Thursday.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, Misty said she is unable to work or go to school — which may pose opportunities for upward mobility — because of her family obligations.

She feels that no one else can take care of her two kids, aged 5 and 1 because the two adults she shares a home with, her mother and fiancé, both have medical conditions. They also need care.

And just like many other low-income mothers, she said she cannot afford child care.

“I’m basically it,” Misty said as she watched the kids play on the porch.

“I worked for a little bit ... but found that I have to be ... at home with my kids,” she added.

“This is the cold fact of life. ... You just got to live it day-by-day around here,” the young mother said.

Life is hard, but she does her best to provide for her children’s needs, she added.

Because of family obligations and no other support system, it is “very difficult” for women to “go to school” and “keep a job,” Steiger said.

And those who work tend to end up in low paying jobs, such as retail and food service, he said.

This is also true if a parent is raising a child or children on his or her own.

Many low-income families are headed by single parents, Skinner said. And parents who are “young and starting out” tend to be low income as well.

And when their parents do not make enough money, the children carry the burden of poverty.

There were more than 16 million children under age 18 living poverty in the U.S. in 2012, according to the Census data. The poverty rate for children under age 18 was 21.8 percent.

“It’s a very big burden to grow up poor,” Skinner said as these children tend to be exposed to poor housing conditions and poor nutrition (which then have an impact on their health). Poor children also tend to do worse in school, he said.

In Indiana, the child poverty rate was 22.4 percent in 2012. In Vigo County, it was a little over 31 percent.

Both at the national and local levels, the poverty rates for children are much higher than the poverty rates among the elderly. The national poverty rate for people aged 65 and older was 9.1 percent in 2012. In Indiana, it was a little over 7 percent.

“The elderly is not really the face of the poor today. It’s really the children,” Steiger, who has taught at ISU for 26 years, said.

And Misty, mother of two, feels alone in the poverty battle.

“I don’t think it’s gonna get any better,” she said.

“I feel like there’s not enough people out there helping. It’s people against people all the time,” Misty added.

“If you have more people in the community step up and become united instead of divided,” things can get better yet, she said.

Tribune-Star Reporter Dianne Frances D. Powell can be reached at 812-231-4299 or dianne.powell@trib