During the 30 years I have been living in Chicago, I have come up with two informal and unofficial indexes of the city’s economic activity. The one I am writing about today I call the Lakeview Panhandler Economic Index. In the 1990’s I banked on Chicago’s north side at a bank at Ashland, Belmont, and Lincoln. Almost invariably when I left the bank, a panhandler asking for bus fare would greet me. Back then, these guys did not look or smell very good.

The base line for this index then was 1, reflecting a steady economic environment. If I was greeted by two or more solicitations for money, the index would increase, reflective of declining economic activity. Not surprising to people who know me, the best the economic index could be was 0; while there was no limit to how bad the local economy could get. The bank put an end to the Lakeview Panhandler Economic Index when it remodeled the bank and moved the entrance a half block north away from the bus stop.

I have been somewhat mystified that during the current economic downturn, the unemployment rate has remained below ten percent even as I think this is the worst economic environment of my lifetime. I think back to the early 1980s when interest rates approached twenty percent and the unemployment rate was over ten percent. Either the current unemployment rate below eight percent does not reflect the realities of the current economic environment or, alternatively, it really is not that bad.

I am opting for the former – it is bad, really bad. If the bus stop had not been moved, the Lakeview Panhandler Economic Index would be at a 4 today. It would probably be a higher class of panhandler, however, than when I created the index. It would be a guy like me in a suit and tie, briefcase under the left arm with the right hand extended as he said, “Hey, I left my wallet at home. Could you spare a buck for the bus?”