Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

October 13, 2013

Brown County working sensibly toward better future

By Morton Marcus Tribune guest columnist
Kokomo Tribune

---- — There are so many ways to look at Brown County. You can marvel at the golden colors as the leaves turn this time of the year. You can admire the high median household income and high rates of educational attainment enjoyed by the citizens of Brown County. Or, you can zero in on the low wages paid to workers in the county.

For this place (Nashville and its surrounding communities) is not like other lightly populated counties in Indiana. With just 15,000 residents (81st in the state), Brown County has a population density of just 48 people per square mile, compared with 182 statewide. This is because much of the county’s 312 square miles are state or federal lands not open to development.

The dominant private sector of Brown’s economy is accommodations and food services, primarily geared to tourist and convention business. But there are also artists and craftsmen who get by with little cash income in exchange for a chosen lifestyle. These factors lead to an average annual wage per job below $24,000, the lowest in the state.

Yet Brown County ranks 14th in Indiana for residents with education of a bachelor’s degree or more, and 21st in percent of adults with at least a high school diploma. These achievements give the county a median household income that is 12th in Indiana and 15 percent above the state average. Poverty is less of a problem in Brown County (13 percent) than in the state (15.8 percent).

Commuting explains the issue. More than one-third of Brown residents who hold jobs commute to neighboring Bartholomew, Marion, Johnson and Monroe counties. Highly skilled commuting workers from Brown County bring back good incomes when they return home. Those who remain to work in the county have low incomes either because of limited opportunities or lifestyle choices. (One of those lifestyles is retirement which has drawn a goodly number of non-poor households to Brown).

Few would suggest that economic development should change the balance of diverse lifestyles in the county. However, it is clear young people and adults require further education to earn better wages in the county or participate in the economic growth prevalent in surrounding counties.

One such effort investing in the county’s future is the Career Resource Center. Here people who have stopped climbing the education ladder find a new set of steps to diploma, certificate and degree achievement. Otherwise, these are potentially the hardcore working poor of the future.

Counseling is a central part of the program to enable students to see beyond the constraints and the blandishments of the community as it is today. The 10-year record of the CRC is impressive with hundreds of students moving from introductory classes in Nashville to completion of programs in Columbus and Bloomington.

Participants are given an opportunity through CRC to resume climbing that education ladder within the context of their Brown County upbringing. They learn that coming from some place as different as Brown County does not mean being excluded from the opportunities Indiana and America offer.

Morton Marcus is an independent economist, writer and speaker. Contact him at mortonjmarcus@yahoo.com.