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To reduce childhood poverty in Elkhart County, build a new kind of economy

Diversifying the Elkhart County economy improves our ability to withstand the next recession. But it can also accomplish something more immediate — by building a resilient, diversified economy, we can lift thousands more of our children out of poverty.

Posted on July 26, 2014 at 7:22 p.m.

In 2011, more than a quarter of Elkhart County children lived in poverty — 27.4 percent. Or, to put it another way, roughly 15,400 kids.

That rate fell to 21.2 percent in 2012.

We should celebrate any time a child overcomes poverty, let alone 3,500 in a single year. But the congratulations can wait.

Because nearly 12,000 children here still live in poverty, and the only way to help them is by building a nimble and diverse Elkhart County economy.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2014 Kids Count Data Book, released Tuesday, shows that Indiana ranks 27th nationally in child well-being. A year ago, we finished 30th.

Indiana improved in both education (26th) and economic well-being (19th), but slipped six places — to 27th — in health. Officials with the Indiana Youth Institute credited the state’s overall improvement to better student test scores.

Here at home, 6.2 percent of Elkhart County children escaped poverty. But the good news didn’t stop there — the teen birth rate dropped by nearly half between 2008 and 2011 and the number of children in need of services fell by more than half. Child abuse and neglect also declined.

Childhood poverty slipped to its lowest mark since 2008, when it finished at 18 percent. Children’s health and safety improved. So why not declare victory and move on to other pressing challenges?

Because the number of children qualifying for free or reduced-cost lunches increased to 56.4 percent in 2012 — the fourth straight increase and a jump from 50 percent in 2009.

That indicates the need for a fundamental shift in the county’s economy.

Elkhart County unemployment doubled between 2008 and 2009, going from 8.5 percent to 17.9 percent as the Great Recession the RV industry. But in one of the America’s great comeback stories, we added jobs by the thousands and reduced the county’s jobless rate to below 6 percent.

Two weeks ago, The Elkhart Truth published the first part of “5 Years Later: Elkhart County and the Great Recession.” We found that while manufacturing jobs increased by 10,000 between 2009 and 2014, growing from 28,012 to 38,083, the average annual wage for a manufacturing job decreased by 13 percent — falling from $34,040 to $29,630.

And even though the number of people working in Elkhart County grew from 74,674 to 89,057 over the last five years, unemployment increased in May and June as people returned to the workforce and couldn’t find jobs.

When you’ve got a manufacturing job that pays $34,040 a year, you can make a mortgage payment, buy a car and make sure the kids have lunch money and new clothes for school.

When you make $4,400 less for the same work, that becomes a lot tougher.

And when the part of your economy that pays $4,400 less grows by more than a third between 2009 and 2014, it’s no wonder more school kids qualify for free and reduced-cost lunches.

The Economic Development Corp. of Elkhart County hired Chad Steele last year to help the attract higher-paying jobs. Steele, president and chief operating officer of Investment Consultant Associates, shared his assessment of the local economy with business leaders in April.

Our dependence on the transportation industry places us at risk, he said.

“You have your history, your legacy, your economic networks in place, but you can nudge it a little. You can add to the edges so that over time you can add a lot more diversification and resilience into the local economy,” Steele said at the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce’s annual economic development luncheon.

As a result, the EDC changed its approach to recruiting; it’s no longer pursuing light-assembly operations paying less than $20 an hour.

Diversifying the Elkhart County economy improves our ability to withstand the next recession. But it can also accomplish something more immediate — by building a resilient, diversified economy, we can lift thousands more of our children out of poverty.

Which makes it even more urgent.


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