David Hoppe

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:: A poor state for girls

Indiana can’t keep up

by David Hoppe

I just got back from my niece’s wedding in New Mexico. She’s enjoying a successful career as a nurse; met a guy who seems like the real deal and, together, they are riding off into what promises to be a splendid future.

I’m sure glad she didn’t grow up in Indiana.

That was my first thought upon getting home and finding “The Status of Girls in Indiana”, a new report from Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame that claims to be the first study of how girls between the ages of 10 and 19 in this state are doing.

The results are enough to make you think that, for girls, life in this state is caught in a kind of time warp.

According to the report, our high school girls are more likely to be overweight (18.5 percent) than girls in other states. At the same time, they are also more likely to take diet pills, laxatives or resort to vomiting to lose weight.

And 20 percent of girls do not engage in at least 60 minutes of physical activity on any given day.

Hoosier girls are more likely to graduate from high school than Hoosier boys, but they do worse on most standardized tests. Although they best the boys on Advanced Placement tests having to do with foreign languages and arts, they fall behind when it comes to math and science.

The chances of a girl being forced to have sex are higher in Indiana than the national average; approximately 15 percent of female high school students here report having been raped.

Finally, middle school girls are more likely to smoke, drink alcohol or use prescription drugs than boys in the same age group.

Kristin Jehring Kuter, one of this project’s leaders, and an Assistant Professor of Math, said she was surprised by the mental health and body image data: “I didn’t realize that the figures of girls affected by depression and suicide were as high as they are, and that girls in the eighth grade seem to struggle the most with these issues.”

Carol Mooney, Saint Mary’s president added: “Depression, inactivity, and obesity were significantly higher in Indiana than in the rest of the nation. Suicide rates were also statistically higher.”

Mooney and Jehring Kuter are quick to say that many girls in Indiana are doing fine. But this doesn’t make up for the fact that so many are behind their counterparts in other states.

What’s going on?

While it is tempting to make sweeping generalizations about something being cracked in the state’s culture, to speculate that our obsessions with sports, guns and internal combustion have preserved Indiana as a kind of boys’ club, this may miss a larger issue — Indiana’s dismal rate of personal income.

Last week, the state’s most recent ISTEP scores were released. Guess what: Carmel and Zionsville, Indiana’s two wealthiest communities, ranked No.1 and 2 in the percentage of students who passed the test last spring.

Meanwhile, the state’s lowest-income school districts, places like East Chicago, Medora, Gary and Indianapolis, were at the bottom of the list.

Family income, in other words, looks like a definite predictor of how well a kid — girl or boy — is likely to do in school.

Kids, of course, may be affluent and still be plagued by eating disorders and suicidal thoughts like those afflicting so many Hoosier girls.

But in a state where, in some parts, the standard of living can be decades behind what passes for average in the rest of the country, the linkage between personal incomes and the quality of girls’ lives seems impossible to ignore.

A recent Ball State study found that average per capita income in Indiana in 2010 only made it as high as the national average in 1996. Indiana ranked 40th among states for 2010 per capita income.