Morton Marcus

The Goldilocks dilemma is rampant in Indiana. Ask Hoosiers about the place where they live. Let them talk, let them get beyond the “loyal” response, “It’s a great place to raise kids.” What you’ll hear is, “This place isn’t as good as it used to be.”

That’s not idle nostalgia. It’s a heart-felt repudiation of years with unilateral change. On the downside, we have East Chicago, Hammond, Gary, Evansville and Connersville as prime examples. Each of these cities had a population peak in 1960. And each experienced a population decline in each of the next six decennial Census reports.

Sixty years on a downward slope left Gary with 109,000 fewer residents, a decline of 61% in population. Evansville lost 24,000, a drop of 17% in its numbers.

We know what it means. School closings. Deferred maintenance of infrastructure as tax revenues fail to keep up with costs. Discouragement for two generations of the young, and often heartbreak for the people who invested in the homes and businesses of the community.

In sum, 497 (71%) out of 696 Indiana places (cities, towns and unincorporated communities) found themselves in 2020 below their peak population. For the other 199 (29%) of Hoosier places, 2020 was their peak population year.

On this growing side of population change were the familiar suburban magnets of Fishers, Carmel and Westfield north of Indianapolis, as well as St. John and Schererville south of the declining cities in northern Lake County.

What’s the problem in these newer versions of Paradise? Congestion. Increased demand for public services, including schools. Yielding natural areas to development. And even “people not like us,” whoever we are.

Some observers will claim these concerns are the “natural” consequences of change. Some places grow while others decline. It’s a pendulum as old as the history of human settlements themselves.

Others, intemperate busybodies, unwilling to accept the inveterate, costly disruptions of growth and decline, will insist that public policy be invoked to reverse these “natural” flows of fortune.

But what policies could reverse the abandonment of decaying communities for the rewards of the advancing settlements? And is it appropriate to enact such policies?

The how is straight forward: land use controls, carefully allocate building permits and business licenses, don’t subsidize the aspirations of over-grown places; rescue, repurpose, reuse or replace facilities neglected through time in declining places.

Furthermore, improve access between places. Whether it be the roads or the internet, connectivity is critical. Indiana, at one time, had superior rail and road development, but much rail has been abandoned and roads neglected. In addition, attention is needed to create a fully modernized air travel network.

As for appropriateness, look about. Listen to what people say about their lives. Don’t accept “good enough” as good enough.

Morton J. Marcus is an economist. Reach him at

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