Morton Marcus: Indiana's 'Distressed Dozen' counties
Thursday, August 18, 2016 10:41 AM
INDIANAPOLIS – Basketball may be king in Indiana, but the king is losing his castles. They demolished the Wigwam in Anderson last week. Soon the 1928 Fieldhouse in Muncie could meet the wrecker’s ball.
Sentimentality may extend the life of this structure, but cannot erase certain facts: Anderson and Muncie are part of a 12-county neglected region. This Distressed Dozen, stretching from Logansport through Peru and Wabash, to Richmond and Connersville, encompass massive tumors of economic and social decay, despite the remedial efforts of local leaders.
When the state recently awarded millions of dollars to three regions, this area was totally neglected. Ten of the 21 Indiana counties that lost population in the past 20 years are part of the Distressed Dozen. In total they have seen their population drop by 4% (26,700) while the balance of the state enjoyed a 16% increase (830,000).
At the heart of this population decline was the loss of 47,100 jobs in the region. This was equivalent to losing one of every eight jobs in these 12 counties. Each of the Distressed Dozen lost jobs over the past two decades. Fayette County saw more than one-third of its jobs disappear. Together Delaware and Madison counties lost nearly 11,000 jobs, while the rest of the state gained 489,000 jobs.
A declining jobs market retards earnings growth. After adjustment for inflation, Indiana saw average earnings per job increase by 21% from 1994 to 2014. In the Distressed Dozen counties, the growth was a meager 4%. Where the average Hoosier job was worth $8,600 more in buying power in 2014 than 20 years earlier, the gain in the distressed counties was a paltry $1,600 or four cents per hour.
You would think the State of Indiana would seek to ease the burdens of industrial evolution. However, our legislative and economic development programs ignore or punish the areas most damaged by sweeping national and international trends. Just look at the bypass around Kokomo in the heart of the Distressed Dozen. Almost everyone from South Bend and Elkhart joins the residents of the Indianapolis area in extolling the new bypass around the east side of Kokomo. Why not, however, build a modern highway, as a part of the on-going revitalization of downtown Kokomo? Have we not learned that the initial lower costs of bypass construction result in higher costs when we try to resurrect downtown areas?
I-69 bypasses downtown Fort Wayne, Marion, Muncie and Anderson; I-70 skips around Richmond and Terre Haute; I-65, I-74 and I-94, as well as the new I-69, were built to avoid the cities they are supposed to serve. This follows the original plan for the Indiana Toll Road: Keep “foreign” trucks out of our cities and towns.
Only Indianapolis has interstates going through the center of the city. The result: Only Indianapolis has a vibrant downtown. Now, Kokomo has a new bypass, as if it needed surgery from Dr. Strangelove.
Mr. Marcus is an economist, writer, and speaker who may be reached at mortonjmarcus@yahoo.