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EDITORIAL: Poverty report is wake-up call

Region’s leaders must step up

November 26, 2016

The drumbeat of new-jobs announcements coming out of the Indiana Economic Development Corp. and the momentum enjoyed by certain industries, including technology, can have an unintended consequence—lulling us all into thinking we’re doing better economically than we really are.

A new report from the Center for Community Progress—which IBJ reported on in a front-page story last week—contains chart after chart about incomes and home values in Indianapolis proper that are disheartening and even cause for alarm.

To be sure, many parts of central Indiana are outperforming Indianapolis, in part by attracting the high-income professionals all communities covet. But as the great Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut put it, “You can’t be a suburb of nothing”—a catchy way of saying the health of the entire region hinges on having a strong core.

Here are some Marion County numbers that grabbed us from the report:

• From 2000 to 2014, the percentage of the population below the poverty level swelled 80 percent, from 11.9 percent to 21.4 percent.

• From 1999 to 2014, inflation-adjusted household incomes fell at least 10 percent in 75 percent of the city’s census tracts. Inflation-adjusted incomes fell at least 30 percent in 48 percent of the tracts. In contrast, only 5.9 percent of tracts reported an increase in inflation-adjusted household incomes.

The challenges are not unique in large American cities, of course. And Indianapolis is gaining population, something that can’t be said for Detroit and Cleveland. But anyone thinking peer-city comparisons will spiff up Indianapolis’ numbers will come away from the report disappointed.

For example, while in 2000 Indianapolis’ median home value ranked behind that of Columbus, Ohio, but ahead of Kansas City, Missouri, and Milwaukee, by 2014 it ranked last among the four. Similarly, over that span, Indianapolis’ median household income fell from first to third.

The good news is that Mayor Joe Hogsett already has made tackling poverty one of three key priorities of his administration. Through EmployIndy, the mayor is focusing on boosting the prospects for low- and mid-skilled workers with a mix of job training and career planning.

At the same time, the Central Indiana Community Partnership is ramping up its new Ascend Indiana initiative, which aims to connect employers with the skilled workforce they need, in part by helping to provide the training.

Then there’s the recently approved transit referendum—which clears the way for the City-County Council to impose an income tax to improve bus service. Right now, only 33 percent of Marion County jobs can be reached via transit in 90 minutes—a huge impediment to improving the job prospects of the unemployed and underemployed.

We’re glad so many promising efforts are converging at once. But putting a dent in poverty is hard, unglamorous work. It will take a concerted push lasting years and involving stakeholders in business, education, government and the not-for-profit community.

It’s time for a no-holds-barred attack on poverty. We think our great city is up to the challenge.•

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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