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Poverty on the rise across the region, IUN researchers say

Updated: December 2, 2013 12:19PM



GARY — While high poverty rates are not surprising in East Chicago, Gary, and Hammond, Northwest Indiana leaders should be concerned about rising poverty in areas like Schererville, Highland, Merrillville and Crown Point, which has doubled in the past decade.

Indiana University Northwest researchers Micah Pollak and Surekha Rao demonstrated poverty trends and their relationship to unemployment and educational attainment Wednesday afternoon at IUN’s biannual Chancellor’s Commission on Community Engagement. They discussed poverty and economic growth issues alongside David Reingold, IU Bloomington assistant dean of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, and Ty Warner, Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission executive director.

“It’s not just something that exists in one town like Gary, but it exists in all communities,” Pollak said.

In Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties, poverty has been rising since 2000, but the issue was exacerbated by the economic downturn of 2008. Poverty rises alongside unemployment, but it can fall if educational attainment levels grow, Pollak said.

Reingold spotlighted federal government programs like VISTA, where 5,000 to 6,000 volunteers per year are linked with communities to help implement anti-poverty initiatives.

“It really tries to marry citizen engagement with anti-poverty efforts,” he said.

The School of Public and Environmental Affairs has its own VISTA fellows program, which demonstrates the relationships universities can help foster in their local communities, Reingold said. Currently, IU is one of only a handful of universities that work with VISTA.

“There are challenges the region faces in trying to tackle these problems, but the IU campus can create a natural incubator,” he said.

Warner laid out how the region’s population has shifted — from northern Lake County to Merrillville, Valparaiso and the Tri-Town area — as well as public transportation limitations, food deserts, and remediation sites.

“I’ve heard the saying, ‘As goes Gary, so goes the rest of the region,’ ” Warner said. “We need regional collaboration and to partner with other organizations, like universities. There’s a great amount of research that is done, which is never passed onto relevant organizations.”

Rao has developed an All-Inclusive Growth and Economic Index, which goes beyond simply measuring income changes.

“It includes those who are missing out on equal economic opportunity,” Rao said.

While income in Lake County was relatively stable between 2008 and 2013, her index showed an almost 16 percent decline in that same period.

Porter County performed the best in Northwest Indiana, followed by Lake and LaPorte counties.

In the discussion that followed, former Merrillville Superintendent Tony Lux said universities could assist schools by researching the best ways to intervene with a child of poverty, who is not meeting academic standards.

“We need to find the skills to meet these kids’ needs,” Lux said.



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