Updated: July 9, 2014 6:18AM
If you want to mess with the mind of an Indiana economist — and who has not dreamed of such a thrill? — ask where all the workers are.
Ask what happened to the 2 million Hoosiers who are missing from the workforce as if an alien spacecraft landed, zapped them into particulate dust and hauled them away to another galaxy to be zinnia mulch. The number is equivalent to double the combined populations of Lake, Porter, LaPorte and St. Joseph counties.
If economists hear the question and understand what asking it implies, they will give you one of those there’s-an-odd-scent-in-the-elevator expressions.
Economists know the nuts and bolts of how the capitalistic economic equation computes, except for the human answer to this question. The nomenclature calls it NITLF, which stands for “not in the labor force.”
While the state cranks along pretending the recession is over because we’ve swiped all of Illinois’ good jobs through the miracle of clever sloganeering, something has been left askew.
No matter how the numbers are juggled, 38 percent of adult Hoosiers aren’t working, and they’re not trying to find a job, either. They’ve gone “gray,” as cultural anthropologists call it.
In fact, Indiana suffered the largest drop in its workforce participation rate of any Midwest state, starting in 2007. The rate of working Hoosiers fell from 66.7 to 62.3 percent over the intervening years.
And it’s not getting better. The downward pace is accelerating fast. The percentage of Hoosiers who work for wages hasn’t been this low since 1970 when lots of them were stay-at-home moms.
Of course, the real question is not what happened to your missing neighbors. They are still there mowing their yards and watching TV, but they’re just not working.
Some never left home after school, some moved back home, some are adults who have decided to go back to college while the economic swoon abates, if it ever does.
Some are like Sara Swinehart, who should be the model of American ingenuity and dedication. But for her, at least at this moment , the American Dream is more like a rapid eye movement reverie.
She’s 28 now, back living at home in Valparaiso with mom and dad. “Thank God I have understanding parents,” she says
Swinehart graduated from Purdue with a bachelor of science degree in speech therapy and dedicated herself to autistic children. Got a job at Cornerstone Autism Center in Lafayette and signed for a $28,000 student loan, “which works out to be $100,000 if you include the interest,” she says.
Her loan repayment was $450 a month. Then she took a second job and then a third as a part-time tennis instructor. “Just couldn’t make it, “ Swinehart says. “I would have applied for graduate school. But with my debt load and income, I could never qualify for a loan now. And I just can’t go back to working 60 hours a week. I certainly never thought that I’d be living at home with my parents at this point in my life. It’s disappointing.”
Now her primary occupation is negotiating a survivable loan repayment plan that does not include permanent indentured servitude.
Her life’s work — which should have immense value to society — does not pay enough to cover the cost of learning the skill. More training and more debt might qualify her for higher pay, but it’s an economic Catch-22.
Swinehart is the question economists can’t quite answer. If there are too many like her among the 2 million, then laziness and lassitude are not the reasons that many jobless don’t work. We’d prefer the easier “they’re bums” answer.
Even bankruptcy does not help her because student loans cannot be forgiven by bankruptcy under current rules. “This has affected everything in my life, including my mental health,” Swinehart says.
Some of the 2 million have decided they can do something other than work for a living — welfare, paid disability or the “gray economy,” which usually means growing pot.
This possibility scares economists, who can only build intellectual sandcastles if everyone really wants to play on the beach.
As for practical problems, not knowing how many people have temporarily bailed out makes it impossible for governments to know how much money they have.
Swinehart would feel sympathy for perplexed economists. But she’d prefer a good-paying job she was trained for. It’s been two years now. She’s found that living without a job can be hard work.
Contact David Rutter