The Journal Gazette
Sunday, April 12, 2020 12:01 am


Crisis lays bare Indiana's poorly placed priorities

The numbers are grim:

• Indiana unemployment claims in April are up nearly 3,000% over January, the 10th-largest increase among the states.

• Demand at Community Harvest Food Bank is up 40% as job losses leave families without a source of income.

• Indiana, which ranks 49th in the nation for spending on public health, lags all its neighboring states in testing for coronavirus.

• The state's 211 hotline is receiving about 25,000 calls a day regarding mental health, including suicide distress calls, compared with the usual 1,000 calls a day.

• A communitywide survey by researchers at the Parkview Mirro Center conducted in mid-March found 44% of Fort Wayne residents are living paycheck to paycheck, with no way to meet living expenses beyond one or two weeks.

The numbers reveal a state unprepared to face its current crisis. One state official said last week that Indiana's safety net was never prepared to catch everyone, but the pace at which it stretched to the breaking point shows how fragile the state's economic strength was. Its vaunted low cost of doing business counts for little when businesses are ordered to close. Low cost of living means nothing when low-wage jobs are on furlough. An attractive corporate tax climate is meaningless when the economy has ground to a halt.

If Indiana had invested more in its residents than its businesses, is it possible there would be fewer Hoosiers suffering today? What if the state had spent less time trying to bolster payday-lending companies and instead raised the eligibility and benefit levels for Temporary Aid to Needy Families – levels that remain the same as when established in 1988?

What if it had spent less time targeting regulatory requirements on businesses and instead adopted a voluntary work-share program that would allow employees to stay on the job at reduced hours and collect partial unemployment compensation? Might more Hoosiers be working today?

If the General Assembly devoted more time to considering paid sick time requirements and less to trumped-up “religious freedom” debates, might there be more Hoosiers prepared to weather the crisis?

What if Indiana lawmakers hadn't long resisted calls from both health and business leaders to adopt a higher cigarette tax and instead invested the resulting revenue in health programs and smoking-cessation efforts? Would fewer people be smokers today? Would fewer be at risk for a deadly respiratory virus?

Many will say now is not the right time to ask these questions. But somehow it wasn't the right time when lawmakers were boasting of Indiana's economic strength, either. When the COVID-19 shutdown is finally past, Hoosiers shouldn't overlook how quickly the state reached a crisis situation. They shouldn't allow elected officials to dismiss Indiana's unpreparedness as unavoidable.

There were calls for change. There were models to follow. There were warnings – largely ignored – that too many Hoosiers were living on the edge. They are impossible to ignore now.

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