IBJOpinion

MARCUS: Evansville is the least loser or best of the bad

Morton Marcus
April 30, 2011
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Morton Marcus

If you are asked to slice Indiana’s map into regions, where would you draw the cutting lines? Would you choose nine regions in the form of a tic-tac-toe game?

Indiana’s 92 counties are organized into various regions according to the wisdom of the agency doing surgery on the map. Perhaps the least known regional groups are the “economic areas” drawn by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. These are 179 comprehensive districts encompassing all the nation’s 3,000-plus counties. They are the major market areas of the country linked internally by commercial and transportation patterns.  

Unlike the better-known metropolitan statistical areas, which are based on commuting patterns of workers, no county is left behind. Jay and Jackson counties have places in the economic-areas configuration.  

While Gaul was divided into three parts, Indiana’s 92 counties are cut into seven economic areas. Only two (Fort Wayne and Indianapolis) do not cross state lines. South Bend extends into Michigan and Evansville into both Kentucky and Illinois. Three areas (Chicago, Cincinnati and Louisville) include Indiana counties as part of larger interstate areas.

The Indianapolis area stretches from Richmond on the east to Terre Haute on the west, from Peru on the north to Paoli on the south. It has a total of 45 counties with a population of approximately 3.4 million. By contrast, the Fort Wayne area has only 12 counties with a population of 790,000.

Recent data from the bottom of the recession reveal all seven economic areas that include Indiana counties experienced declines in per-capita personal income. From 2008 to 2009, Evansville had the least decline, with a fall of 0.9 percent. This qualified for 68th place among the 179 economic areas and the top spot for an Indiana area. Only 30 areas nationwide saw PCPI grow. Evansville led the state as the least loser or the best of the bad.

The positive spin is that the nation’s PCPI fell 2.6 percent and four of our seven areas did not fall by that much. Such is Hoosier happy talk. When we do not do as poorly as other places, we count ourselves winners. The South Bend area, however, ranked 173rd of 179 and not even our best cheerleaders can make wine from those grapes.

PCPI is one of the most commonly used measures of economic well-being. Only jobs get more attention. Despite the drum-banging enthusiasm of our state economic development agency, Indiana still has a long way to go in the area of employment recovery.

As of March, the number of employed people in Indiana is still 233,000 (-7.6 percent) below where we stood in March 2007. This relegates us to seventh from the bottom in terms of the climb needed to regain our status of four years ago. Michigan has the steepest climb, needing to regain 9.8 percent in people employed to achieve parity with March 2007. 

Economic data are confusing when we use different time periods, geographies and measures to tell the story. Nonetheless, the evidence is clear: Our state’s economy remains weak. Despite the boasting bantams of state government, our Hoosier economy needs intensive care both for the short term and on a protracted basis. We dare not pretend to be a model of sound practices given our continuing deteriorated condition.•

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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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