Hoosier Hope or Hype?

As an Indiana native, I know the people that are currently hardest hit by the frightening unemployment numbers.  I know the simple lives those citizens lead, and I know the independent spirit of our nation's most unheralded workers.  The Hoosier mentality is strong, despite this year's economic circumstances.  But, I wonder what will happen this week as the nation's spotlight will momentarily shine upon the town just ten minutes down the road from my family home.  I wonder what the attitude will be of this concerned community.  As President Obama plans to visit Elkhart, Indiana, I wonder what the residents will say. 

During election time, the state of Indiana is usually one of the nation's most reliably red.  In fact, the state never voted for moderate Democrats John F. Kennedy or Harry Truman, and only voted for legendary liberal Franklin Roosevelt in two of his four elections.  Hoosiers voted for Lyndon Johnson in 1964, but didn't go blue again for 44 years.  Obama edged out a victory there by 1% in 2008, despite the color of the state's election map showing overwhelming red.  The few high minority and high union urban areas across the state were enough to carry the 11 electoral votes.  But Elkhart County voted for McCain by a healthy 11% margin. 

Elkhart is an area that may only be 100 miles from Obama's sweet home Chicago, but might as well be in a different hemisphere.  Obama needs to know what he's getting himself into before promising hope while spoon-feeding hype.  Otherwise, Obama might find himself not in the publicity campaign he intends and the savior ceremony he expects.  But rather, he will quickly face the difficult realities for which he must answer: family demographics, immigration, earmarks, inefficient spending, capitalism, energy policy, and good ol' Midwestern stubbornness. 

Here's how:

1.  Obama first needs to be aware of some important facts about the Indiana population.  Lake County, which borders Chicago, Marion County, which encompasses Indianapolis, and St. Joseph County, home to the University of Notre Dame and Elkhart's next-door neighbor, are the three major areas that helped Obama win the state in the recent election.  However, despite having higher percentages of college graduates and lower unemployment rates, Lake, Marion, and St. Joseph residents earn lower household incomes and live in higher poverty levels than the supposedly downtrodden Elkhart.  Perhaps one reason for these numbers is that Elkhart boasts a lower percentage of single-parent homes.  So families are more stable, incomes are higher, and poverty is lower in the traditional red county than in Obama's blue ones.  Does Obama really want to start a discussion about the success discrepancy between Republican and Democrat families?

2.  Elkhart County has the third highest Hispanic population in the state.  This is due to immigration, both legal and illegal.  When the area's factories began shutting down, many Hispanics began fleeing, either to other opportunistic parts of the country or even back home to Mexico.  Therefore, illegal immigrants are undoubtedly factoring into the high unemployment numbers.  Does Obama really want to appear to be fighting to save the jobs of innumerable illegal workers?

3.  The Elkhart Truth reports that "Indiana could receive as much as $5 billion through the U.S. House version of the stimulus bill, with about $1 billion tabbed for transportation projects."  Much of the remaining money has been targeted for Medicaid benefits and expansion in area schools.  Though these are arguably good causes, particularly for children, these expenditures are simply not stimulating for the general public, and they will provide only a minimal number of jobs.  Does Obama really want to further discuss his non-stimulus package?

4.  In addition to the minimal number of jobs actually created, 2,300 by Elkhart Mayor Dick Moore's estimations, this may only trim Elkhart's 15%-plus unemployment rate to a no-less-alarming 13%-plus rate.  Even President Obama's optimistic goal of re-hiring about 4,800 of the 16,000 unemployed people in the area doesn't sound like a large enough improvement, as unemployment would remain well above the national average at over 10%.  And once the 16 infrastructure improvements Mayor Moore is hoping for are completed, aren't those workers once again unemployed?  Workers need consistent, long-term employment options - not one-shot contract jobs.  Does Obama really want to revisit these employees in six months when they are again out of work?

5.  The citizens of Elkhart have also chosen not to adapt to capitalism and the desires of the marketplace.  Elkhart is famous worldwide for its recreational vehicle production, but in these times of tighter budgets and higher gas prices, purchasing luxury vacation items is not very high on the list for many consumers.  Elkhart became a one-horse show and was successful for a long time, but that show appears to have run its course for the time being.  They have forgotten the first rule of economics - if there is no demand, there is no need for supply.  Does Obama really want to promote the bailout of a company that is manufacturing a product nobody wants to buy?

6.  RV manufacturing in Elkhart flies in the face of all the green initiatives Democrats say they support.  A motor home that gets five miles a gallon or the trailer that must be hitched behind a truck is not only a strain on family discretionary spending, but it is the epitome of the energy inefficiency Obama desperately wants to cure.  Ever see a Prius towing a travel trailer?  How about an electric Winnebago?  Me either.  Does Obama really want to bailout a company that promotes products that guzzle the very oil for which he doesn't want to drill and blatantly defies the standards which he adamantly wants to employ?

7.  Republican Governor Mitch Daniels has allocated millions of dollars to assist displaced workers in the Elkhart area, yet few are taking advantage of the opportunity.  One local news station has reported that "some $13.4 million in state and federal money was set aside to help retrain RV workers who permanently lost their jobs."  However, participation has been less than enthusiastic.  "Qualified individuals are eligible for up to $6,000 to complete an associate's degree program or accreditation in high wage high demand occupations," the report said.  This may include certain medical or technology training where jobs are actually available.  Unfortunately, only "about 30% or $4.2 million has been committed so far and the number of people participating in the program is a small fraction of the number considered jobless."  The people of Elkhart have been given adequate opportunities by the government, but they have chosen to ignore them.  Does Obama really want to throw more money at people who aren't accepting the government assistance that is already available?

I pray my Hoosier brethren can avoid Obama's heroic hype and remember that a citizenry of resolute workers is more productive than an overbearing government could ever be.  I pray that the beautiful basketball floor at Concord High School would return to its rightful role in Friday night hoop religion instead of place of worship at the feet of a marketed messiah.  I pray that the residents of Elkhart adapt to the changing economic environment and take care of each other as a community to allay their fears and rebuild their pride.  Northern Indiana in February can be as miserable as anywhere in the nation, but that doesn't mean its citizens have to be.