Eye on the Pie and Opinion

MARCUS: Should we have commuting policies?

June 4, 2011

Where we work may be in a different county from where we live. Therefore, the Indiana Department of Revenue asks us to report where we work. Then it tabulates how many of us work in our county of residence to make sure that both the home and the work counties get their just optional-income-tax receipts.

In 2009, the latest year for which we have data, 80 percent of Hoosiers worked in the county where they lived, with the other 20 percent going elsewhere to work. Hardly a change from data 10 years earlier.

Should we have policies for commuting? Should we proclaim in our town/county that we provide jobs for all our residents without their going someplace else to find employment? This sounds like a very green thing to say: “Cut the commuting; save time and protect the environment.”

Allen County leads the state, followed closely by Vigo and Tippecanoe counties, in having jobs for its citizens. They are self-reliant, with fewer than 6 percent of their workers commuting to employment elsewhere.

Least self-supporting are Hendricks, Hancock, Warrick and Ohio counties. They each send at least 44 percent of their labor force to other counties for employment.

Should our economic development agencies find jobs for the unfortunate who must commute to make a decent wage? Is it time to liberate our citizens from their daily automotive confinement?

What do Floyd and Marion counties have in common? Both have in-bound commuters as one-quarter of their work force. Are those in-bound commuters taking jobs away from our residents? Do they push down wages? Do we embrace open borders or do we seize the opportunity to capture these non-residents and house them in our community?

The inflow and outflow of workers can seem like a pathetic waste of resources. Stand on a busy street corner and watch the cars moving past. All that metal and fuel to move just one person north and another south. All that time devoted to slogging through traffic in a daily dance of opposite directions.

To other eyes, commuting is an essential component of achieving balance among the diverse desires of households. With two workers and children, a family must decide its location based on many factors. Where are the jobs, where are the schools and churches, where is the medical care, where is the recreation, where are the amenities that give relief from the daily grind?

Some counties balance commuting inflows and outflows. DeKalb and Jackson each have about as many commuters inbound as they have outbound. Should this be a goal?

Marion County is a well-known magnet for jobs, with more than four times as many inbound as outbound commuters. That same ratio holds for Vigo County.

Vanderburgh, Elkhart, Monroe, Howard and Allen counties are acknowledged centers of employment, with at least twice as many inbound as outbound commuters. However, few might believe that St. Joseph County (South Bend-Mishawaka) is no more a magnet than is Jefferson County (Madison), with 123 in-commuters for each 100 outbound.

Similarly, we all recognize Hamilton County as a net exporter of labor, where the outflows of workers exceed the inflows. Yet it might come as a surprise that the ratio of the flows to and from Hamilton is virtually equal to that of Huntington County.

If, in the coming campaigns, mayoral candidates start to pronounce policies for commuting, let’s hope they understand the complexity of those lives enmeshed in daily travels.•

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Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.

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