Seeds of Need

1 of 10 in poverty in First State

 9.4% of Delawareans experiencing hardship

By Joseph Edelen
Posted 3/16/24

DOVER — The number of Delawareans living in poverty remains higher than in neighboring states.

And, while the state’s official poverty levels are lower than they were just a decade …

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Seeds of Need

1 of 10 in poverty in First State

 9.4% of Delawareans experiencing hardship


DOVER — The number of Delawareans living in poverty remains higher than in neighboring states.

And, while the state’s official poverty levels are lower than they were just a decade ago, rates are more complicated than they appear.

From 2017-21, Delaware’s average poverty rate totaled 11.4%, according to a 2023 overview of poverty conducted by the University of Delaware’s Center for Community Research & Service.
The measure showed the first decline in the state’s poverty levels in 15 years but was higher than Maryland’s and New Jersey’s rates of 9.2% and 9.8%, respectively.

“During COVID, there was quite a lot of money pumped into the economy, and this money is still out there,” said Dr. Ezekiel Ette, chair of Delaware State University’s Department of Social Work.

“So, you have a lot of money that was pumped in, and it lowers who is qualified for certain benefits and certain programs. As a result, that actually brings up a lot of people and leaves some people out of poverty.

“It doesn’t mean that life has changed, or people are making more money, but to me, that is the main reason that you see the level of poverty actually looking like it’s declining.”

In 2011, the supplemental poverty measure was introduced to factor governmental assistance, taxes and work and health care expenses into the rate.

Based on 2018 data from the Center for Community Research & Service, Delaware’s official poverty rate was 12.7%, while the supplemental poverty measure tallied 14%.

This measure is important to consider when discussing destitution in Delaware, Dr. Ette said, because it presents a more accurate depiction of the financial hardships facing families, which extends to those living just above the official threshold.

In 2023, Delaware’s official poverty rate totaled 9.4%, according to the U.S. census. The average number of persons per household from 2018-22 was 2.5, and per the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ federal poverty guidelines, the threshold for a three-person household was $24,860 in income.

The national branch of United Way — a nonprofit that aims to increase access to life-improving resources — describes individuals who are above the federal poverty line but cannot afford basic costs of living in their county as “ALICE” or asset-limited, income-constrained and employed.

And, while 45,592 Delaware households were below the federal poverty line in 2021, another 115,276 families were in the ALICE population, according to United Way of Delaware’s 2023 report.

“That’s a population that’s mixed into everything we’re talking about, but they’re almost invisible in some ways, either because they are the ‘E’ (since) they’re employed, or they make just a little bit more than the cutoff for certain resources, certain benefits that others get,” said Dan Cruce, chief operating officer for United Way of Delaware.

“One unplanned car accident, one unplanned medical issue, (and) they’re right into the poverty level.”

Mr. Cruce added that, during the pandemic, more people fell into the ALICE population and qualified for state and federal assistance. This led to a difficult transition for thousands when COVID-19-era expansions, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, ended.

Further, there are several factors contributing to the population of individuals living in poverty, like housing, income, transportation and food insecurity.

Throughout the state, there are pockets of poverty, Dr. Ette said. For example, such areas can pop up due to the lack of affordable housing, as well as food deserts, in Wilmington and in Sussex County.

According to the University of Delaware’s report, Kent had the highest five-year average poverty rate of each county at 13.3%, compared to 10.6% in New Castle and 12.1% in Sussex.

That data was underscored when broken down by urban areas, as Dover had a 20.5% poverty level, and Wilmington a 24% rate, more than twice the statewide figure.

Demographics play a role in those numbers, as well, as the university’s report shows that Black Delawareans had a poverty rate of 17.8%, more than double that of White Delawareans, at 8.4%.

Consistent with the geographic and demographic data, Black residents made up 42.2% of Dover’s population, compared to 41.4% for White residents. In Wilmington, Black residents accounted for 53.7% of the population and White residents for 34.3%.

Tierra Fair, United Way of Delaware’s vice president of engagement and partnerships, said these figures prove that change is necessary.

“The structures that are in place are implicitly racist (and) biased towards those who are in poverty, and all of these barriers have been created to keep people in a perpetual cycle of poverty. Those are the things that we really need to change,” she said.
Her organization has launched several initiatives to assist those in poverty and has assisted the state in its efforts to eradicate impoverishment.

One of those measures is Delaware 211, a free and confidential referral and information helpline that connects callers to services like housing assistance, health care and transportation. Both Mr. Cruce and Ms. Fair said the program is pivotal in assisting Delawareans in their navigation of needed resources.

The necessity for such programs and additional help was echoed by Dr. Ette, who said that recent investments in affordable housing solutions, child care and paid leave have the state heading in a direction toward eradicating poverty.

“We have to look at the role of the safety net and see how we can actually build these systems so that (they) reduce the rate of poverty in the state,” he said. “We have to look at all of that and try to see what we can do to help individuals.”

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