At the Fifth Annual Midwest Peace and Justice Summit held in Indianapolis on April 4, we gave a workshop titled "Overcoming Hoosier Mediocrity." Our half-hour presentation limned concisely yet thoroughly this all-pervasive mediocrity that confronts us daily and was followed by a lively half-hour discussion that, much to our surprise, demonstrated that we were far from alone in what we sense.

For our presentation, we developed a five-page "Hoosier Mediocrity Fact Sheet" of statistics taken from numerous areas of life -- from economic and employment issues through health issues, quality of life, educational attainment (or rather, lack of it), and environmental issues -- that did, indeed, demonstrate our thesis of all-round Hoosier mediocrity.



Read the Hoosier Mediocrity Fact Sheet



Especially striking about this "Fact Sheet" was that, when we put together all our data from sources scattered across many places and over time, a truly startling and devastating portrait of Indiana emerged. There it was, irrefutably, an all-round pervasive mediocrity as the core of Indiana existence, from Gary to Evansville, from South Bend to New Albany.

Bloomington may be exempt from this general statewide condition, but it is a cultural and social oasis surrounded by a vast desert, a truly special case.

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We'll give below some of those statistics, as well as newer ones, that will illustrate exactly this. We will omit or truncate sources so as to conserve space.

"While 30,000 jobs were created during Gov. Mitch Daniels's first administration, 43,000 left the state."

We'll begin with a look at our Hoosier economic situation.

Indiana's unemployment rate for May 2009 was 10.6 percent, ranking the state 40th in the nation in terms of employment, with economists predicting that it could go as high as 11.5 percent by early 2010. Indiana's economic base is in farming and manufacturing, and manufacturing jobs have left the state in droves, leaving behind workers without jobs and communities without hope.

While 30,000 jobs were created during Gov. Mitch Daniels's first administration, 43,000 left the state, and Indiana has lost over 176,000 manufacturing jobs since 1999. This job loss has pushed per capita income in the state from above the national average to below. Indiana ranked 39th in per capita income in 2008, at only $34,103, and its 2.7 percent annual per capita income growth is less than the national average of 2.9 percent.

Two reasons account for this. First, Indiana's economy is still heavily tilted toward manufacturing, with 16.6 percent of its jobs in that sector, highest in the nation. Indiana has had 500,000 or more jobs per year in manufacturing since 1941, with 20 percent of its workforce there. But as both the current recession and past economic history show, manufacturing jobs are layoff-prone ande easily shipped to low-wage countries overseas.

A big reason so much of the Indiana economy is dependent on manufacturing is that Indiana's workforce is largely unskilled and uneducated. Only one-third of its workers has high school diplomas or GEDs, and only 28 percent have college degrees, compared to 39 percent nationally. According to Philip Powell, an Associate Professor of Business at Indiana University-Bloomington quoted in the Indianapolis Star: "We're stuck. We're stuck because we don't have the knowledge base we need in the labor force. A lot of that is because of our really mediocre primary and secondary educational system."

That's one reason why Indiana's highly touted drive to attract high-paying biotech jobs is falling flat -- its workers lack the skills and education for such jobs. The Star recently boasted about biotech employers Eli Lilly in Indianapolis and Cook Instruments in Bloomington providing 7,200 Indiana jobs. This when the Indiana economy is currently losing over 15,000 jobs a month! Biotech in Indiana has shown itself to be just another economic growth pipe dream, akin to other quick-fix schemes developed in the past.

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Turning to environmental and lifestyle matters, a Popular Science magazine listing of Green cities in the United States found none in Indiana, compared to three in Illinois, two in Michigan, and two even in Kentucky, a state Hoosiers like to look down upon.

"A Popular Science magazine listing of Green cities in the United States found none in Indiana, compared to three in Illinois, two in Michigan, and two even in Kentucky."

Indiana is last in receiving funds from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for preventing disease and injuries. That's because the state lacks a public health institute, and none of its colleges and universities have schools of public health. Hence no public health infrastructure.

Further, Indiana ranks 49th in funding from the Hospital Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), 35th in funding from the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response for the Hospital Preparedness Program (ASPR), and 45th in state per capita spending for health care. Indiana is also the third most polluted state in the nation, following Alaska and Ohio.

The national Gallup/Healthways Well Being poll taken last spring determined that Indiana ranks 45th in the nation in overall quality of life, 29th in access to necessities, 35th in physical health, 42nd in "life evaluation" (how people evaluated their current lives and future expectations), 43rd in mental health, 45th in quality of work and 48th in healthy behavior. CDC statistics show that Indiana ranked fifth highest in percentage of adults who smoked in 2006, at 24.1 percent. The national average was 20.1 percent.

Indiana also ranked as the 16th most obese state in the nation in 2008, with 27.4 percent of its adult residents obese, with that percentage essentially holding steady; but an improvement in ranking over what it once was (Indiana had ranked fourth in obesity as recently as 2004) only because the obesity rate increased in 23 states.

The mental health advocacy group, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), gave Indiana a grade of D for its public mental health-care system. (To be fair, however, 20 other states also received Ds, and D was the national average.) Indiana's low grade is due principally to its flat-rate spending on mental health for the past several years and its tendency to incarcerate the mentally ill for minor offenses rather than steer them into treatment.

NAMI's evaluation is based more on quantity and accessibility of services rather than quality, so that, if the testimonies of Indiana mental health consumers on the quality of psychiatric services received were factored in, Indiana's overall grade might well be F.

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Indiana's General Assembly was called "America's worst legislature" by the late Harrison Ullman, Editor Emeritus of Indianapolis's NUVO Newsweekly and inductee into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame. Its process for determining the state budget is ranked second-worst in the country.

"The national Gallup/Healthways Well Being poll taken last spring determined that Indiana ranks 45th in the nation in overall quality of life."

While the 2009 General Assembly couldn't find time to address Indiana's massive job hemorrhaging due to the recession, it did find time to try to restrict women's access to abortion (fortunately defeated) and attempt to de facto punish unemployed workers by cutting their unemployment benefits (also defeated).

Indiana's Republican governor has nastily called Indiana's unemployment benefits "Rolls Royce benefits" because unemployed Hoosiers can get up to 54 percent of their wages in such benefits, although unemployment benefits cap at $390/week, or the full-time wage equivalent of $9.75/hour.

And Indiana's long-talked-about Brain Drain? It's still the case that 46.6 percent of Indiana's recent college graduates leave the state annually, and "overqualified and under-experienced" college graduates who do remain are frequently hard-pressed to find decent employment. Despite Indiana's touting of biotech as the economic road to future prosperity, it's fair to say that Indiana has more college graduates employed as servers and bartenders than as high-tech specialists.

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All this in a culture of smugness and complacency that drives the creative, intelligent and thoughtful crazy. Consider, for example, that Indianapolis is still very much the city that drove out two of its most notable expatriate writers, Kurt Vonnegut and Dan Wakefield. They left Indianapolis in such disgust that they both refused to return for over 40 years. Vonnegut sharply satirized Indianapolis in his 1973 novel, Breakfast of Champions, and Wakefield did the same in his 1971 best-seller, Going All the Way, which is of such literary quality that it's been reprinted by Indiana University Press.

"The mental health advocacy group, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), gave Indiana a grade of D for its public mental health-care system."

Another notable writer who speaks to the point of Indiana mediocrity is 1920s writer Sinclair Lewis, the first American author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and masterful literary portrait-painter of the Midwest. Lewis's sharp satirical bite resonates still in his portrayal of the heavily commercialized superficiality dominant in the big-city Zenith in Babbitt; the small-town smugness, ignorance and cruelty of Main Street and Arrowsmith; and the religiosity, pietism and religious hypocrisy of Elmer Gantry. But few and far between are the Hoosiers who've read Vonnegut, Wakefield or Lewis!

Indiana "progressives" in the Democratic Party are Democrats first and "progressives" last. How else explain the Democrats' tolerance of Senator Evan Bayh, truly Mr. Republican in drag?

Harsh words? Yes. Jaundiced words? Not from our experience. Telling and accurate words, a fitting riposte to the mediocrity, smugness and complacency found throughout Indiana generally? As one of Indiana's political favorites, Sarah Palin, would say, "You betcha!"

George Fish may be reached at georgefish666@yahoo.com, Dave Fey at dcf330@earthlink.net.