News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion Columns

January 25, 2014

MARK BENNETT: A lengthening climb

Rise from poverty tough, but effort begins with a community

TERRE HAUTE — The American economy is improving.

Confidence has risen since the government shutdown by the polarized Congress last fall. Indicators in various sectors show promise.

Thus, more good-paying jobs and a higher standard of living will follow, even in the high-unemployment Wabash Valley, right? Kids growing up here today can rise above their family’s situation and fare better, right?

The answers can be “yes” … if folks here beat the odds, and if their communities take a long, hard look at the way their residents live.

The recovery from the Great Recession has primarily bypassed middle-class and lower-income Americans, especially residents of the Valley, where incomes are just 70 percent of the national average. The wealthiest 1 percent now receive 20 percent of U.S. income earnings, up from 10 percent in 1980. Most people — Republicans, Democrats and independents in similar numbers — believe the “income inequality” gap has grown in the past decade, according to a USA Today-Pew Research Center poll.

So, there’s that.

Members of the younger generation have a chance to climb out of tough economic circumstances. A chance.

Based on income statistics dating back to the 1970s, an American kid born into a household in the bottom fifth of the annual earnings ladder holds an 8 percent chance of eventually living in the top fifth, according to a new study by Equality of Opportunity, a national team of economists. In Terre Haute, the bottom-to-the-top odds stand at 7.6 percent. Ironically, the researchers found the country’s relatively rigid mobility hasn’t changed much in 20 years. The picture is disheartening. Similar research, by the Pew Charitable Trusts Economic Mobility Project, shows kids born into the bottom-fifth income level never reach middle-class, and 43 percent never leave the lower tier.

Neither income inequality or mobility will inspire as much Facebook and coffeeshop banter as virtually unresolvable social issues, but affect more lives more often, day after day, year after year.

The nagging question lingers — how do we create a better path for a kid to rise out of poverty or a working-like-a-demon-just-to-get-by lifestyle? The answer may seem old-school. The Equality of Opportunity researchers, including award-winning economists from Harvard, MIT and Michigan State, found a handful of key factors that eased upward income mobility.

People rose to higher earning levels more often in cities where lower-income families lived among middle-class neighbors — meaning, less economically segregated neighborhoods. Mobility also increased in communities with more two-parent households, stronger K-12 schools, and greater civic engagement such as belonging to a religious group or local organization.

Look around Terre Haute and the Valley. Who lives in the various neighborhoods? How often do families break apart here? Are the schools well-resourced and well-functioning? Are houses of worship well-attended each week, and are the members walking the walk of their faiths in service to others around the community? Do enough volunteers show up to clean up pollution and litter, get meals to the elderly, or mentor a needy youngster?

The Wabash Valley’s economy, jobless rate (above the state and nation) and income levels were on the mind of Joe Donnelly, as Indiana’s Democratic U.S. senator visited Terre Haute last week. “As I look at the state, obviously one of the areas we have a great passion to get the [unemployment] numbers down even more is the Valley here,” Donnelly told the Tribune-Star editorial board on Tuesday.

He’s familiar with toughest-in-the-state circumstances. In the depth of the recession, Elkhart and Howard counties — areas in the congressional district Donnelly previously represented as a U.S. House member before winning election to the Senate in 2012 — suffered through jobless rates near and above 20 percent. The successful bailout of General Motors and Chrysler has since revived those places, but the memory lingers.

“This is something that’s burned into my soul, that a family works best when mom and dad have a job, and have a chance to take care of the family,” Donnelly said. “So everything flows from the chance to go to work — personal dignity, the desire to get up and go get ’em and have a place to go to work every day and take care of your family. So great things flow out of job opportunities. And we want to see more of them here.”

The refreshingly centrist congressman discussed the virtues of the America Works Act, which he began pushing as a House member and is continuing to push in the Senate, joined by fellow senators Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican, and Kay Hagan, a North Carolina Democrat. It would modify existing federal job training efforts by targeting funds first to those most demanded by industry. That could help close Indiana’s “skills gap” in which jobs go unfilled because available workers lack the needed skills.

Education matters. As the skills gap closes, the income inequality gap does, too, and upward mobility eases.

That’s a huge part of the equation, but still, only part of it. Some other big steps in improving the odds of local children someday living a better life must be taken by Hauteans right here in Terre Haute.

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

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