This is the first of a four-part series examining Delaware’s economic and social challenges and opportunities to secure the state’s future.
It was an unfortunate, unintentional double entendre that, given the grim local economic picture, might best have been offered as an open question: A recent email headline from the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce teased, “Aloha New Business.”
The familiar Hawaiian expression commonly carries the dual meaning of both hello and goodbye. And while the good people at the County Chamber are clearly working hard to improve the Delaware economic climate, “goodbye new business” may regrettably be the more apt characterization for our dear state’s current outlook.
Delaware’s economy is among the most sluggish in a region that isn’t exactly tearing the cover off the ball to begin with, growing at just a .2% clip in 2012. Most troubling, a study by the US Chamber put Delaware 47th in per capita income growth, 49th in STEM job growth and ranked dead last for “talent pipeline.” A new CNBC analysis of the top states for business ranks Delaware in the bottom half, scoring us particularly poorly when it comes to technology, innovation and infrastructure.[i]
So on the bellwethers most important for our future, our economy – and the state’s reputation and ability to keep, cultivate and attract business talent – is losing precious ground.
In the fitting words of one of the state’s top-ranking elected officials, Delaware’s economic growth is “anemic.”
Beyond the poor rankings and discouraging economic indices, there are all around us reminders of the human toll of this prolonged economic slump, signals that far too many in our community are in increasing distress.
According to the Food Bank of Delaware, more than 241,000 individual Delawareans rely on their services at least one time each year – if those figures are accurate, that’s a staggering 25+ percent of the people in the state. Nearly 15 percent of our neighbors are on food stamps, with over 55,000 children reliant on that government support to eat. An unthinkable 17 percent of Delaware’s children live in poverty, 30% of children under the age of five.
Property values for once solidly middle class neighborhoods across New Castle County are soft; you don’t have to look too hard to find once tidy, prosperous blue-collar 1960s subdivisions looking a bit down on their heels, repairs put off, lawns unattended.[ii] Pay-day loan outfits have popped up along the Concord Pike and Kirkwood Highway and other unlikely locales in Newark, Bear, Claymont, Harrington and Milford. The News Journal’s daily crime report presents a regular litany of violent and drug-related offenses in suburban and rural areas (eg, “Five Arrested in Kent Drug Bust,” or,“Meth Lab Found After Car, Foot Chase”). Delaware ranks 46th in the US State Crime index.[iii]
Not surprisingly, our health is also in decline, with rates of deadly chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension sharply on the rise. According to a recent report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Delaware’s combined obesity and overweight rate is 63.8 percent, up from a nothing-to-brag-about 51.3 percent fifteen years before and putting us on course to be the third most obese state in the nation by 2030 (naturally, these figures carry daunting societal, economic and financial implications).
Nearly half of all Delaware children are born to unmarried mothers (seven points higher than the national average) and the most recent available data pegs our abortion rate as the highest in the country.
These are not the social signposts of a state on the rise.[iv]
All this data is disturbing, but perhaps just as important, albeit harder to quantify, is the unmistakable — for lack of a better word — “vibe” that one can’t help but pick up, a creeping sense that somehow as a state we are slipping, that our economic foundation has eroded and most unsettling, that there is a certain inevitability to it all.
As dispiriting as Delaware’s situation may be, it would be unfair to say our state’s problems are disconnected from a larger national landscape marked by a hollowed middle class and corroding confidence. Within just the last few weeks, two front page AP stories in The News Journal reinforced the pall cloaking the nation’s outlook: “New US jobs mostly low pay or part time” and “Survey: Majority in US will face near-poverty.”
While no individual state can elude the national and global forces reshaping our lives, for a place whose leaders regularly tout our agility and business-friendliness, there can be nothing but revulsion with our state’s appalling indices.
Yet, it is hard to detect much outrage or any real sense of urgency to address these challenges. How can we be so comfortable with a strangling status quo? Where is the strategy, the vision to turn things around? How can anyone really believe that the changes this time calls for can be achieved through the same means that led us down this dark alley?
As a tiny state with a unique perch in the heart of the Northeast corridor, Delaware has an extraordinary opportunity to be a national leader when it comes to innovation, setting the pace with imaginative and bold reforms of our government, institutions and infrastructure and building a sustainable and vital economic hive that attracts young people from all over.
This is more than just chauvinistic cheerleading – Delaware’s size, geography and heritage are indeed rare and legitimate advantages. Yet our assets have not been effectively leveraged or fortified.
What stands in the way? A status quo vigorously defended by a host of entrenched First State interests.
Rebuilding Delaware will require a paradigm shift in our approach, embracing the reality that transformative change depends on radical reform, and a comprehensive strategy framed around making Delaware a place that young people want to come and stay, revolutionizing our schools, thoughtfully investing in infrastructure and prioritizing land use planning and thoroughly reexamining and modernizing state government operations.
Next: Transforming our Government
[i] A July 19 editorial by Governor Markell (“The First State Aims to be First in Business”) that also appeared on CNBC.com did not mention this study.
[ii] Unfortunately, with so many of our residents living in unincorporated suburban areas, Delaware is particularly prone to social, demographic, generational and economic trends affecting suburbs across the country (as detailed in this piece in Salon).