Delaware proudly interrupts the passage of traffic along the arterial stretch of I-95 with the billboard announcement that it is a “Small Wonder.” And it is small: Fewer than a million people call it home, placing it 45th among the 50 states in population, and its 2,500 square miles make it larger geographically than only Rhode Island.
But whether Delaware deserves to call itself a wonder is another question. For almost the last three decades, the state has been governed by one political party. Its governors, since 1993, have been Democrats; its state Senate has been majority-Democratic since 1973, and so has its lower House since 2009. One-party dominance never makes for political or economic health, as Delaware demonstrates.
On paper, Delaware is the ninth-richest state in the Union, with a per capita GDP of $66,419 (higher even than California). But this bloom in Delaware’s economic cheek is only because of the outsize concentration of wealth in New Castle County and the city of Wilmington, where median family incomes reach as high as $136,000, and where financial corporations have established headquarters under Delaware’s light-handed approach to financial regulation and usury laws. A credit card company, for instance, can establish a headquarters in Delaware, become exempt from corporate income tax there and for operations anywhere else in the US, and enjoy “favorable legal process” in the Delaware Court of Chancery; this helps explain why Joe Biden — Delaware’s six-term US senator — was often called the “senator from MBNA.”
Outside Wilmington, though, prospects are gloomy. In a farm community like Hartly, in central Delaware, the median family income is only $29,375; in Laurel, in Delaware’s southernmost county, it’s just $30,329. Even in a New Castle County town like Newport, which once housed a General Motors plant and a Du Pont chemicals facility, the median family income is only $41,771. More people in Delaware are living in poverty now than were after the recession of 2008. In fact, even after the national economic growth spurt of the last few years, Delaware was one of just two states where the poverty rate rose in 2018 (to 13.6 percent).
Allen C. Guelzo is Visiting Scholar, B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies, Edwin J. Feulner Institute, The Heritage Foundation; Senior Research Scholar, The Council of the Humanities; and Director, Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship, James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions Princeton University. Adapted from City Journal.
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