Social mobility focus of Today and Tomorrow Conference

Delaware Department of Labor Secretary Cerron Cade addresses the audience at the 2019 Sussex County/Today and Tomorrow Conference. Looking on at left is Dr. Bobbi Barends, Delaware Technical Community College Vice President/Campus Director. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

GEORGETOWN — Rungs vary on the social mobility ladder.

In the game of life in Sussex County, Delaware, individuals and families face obstacles trying to climb that ladder.

“We’re trying to level the playing field so that people out of the gate, have the same opportunity. But the sheer reality, social mobility is by our definition … the ability of individuals or groups to be able move up and down the social ladder,” said United Way of Delaware president/CEO Michelle Taylor, the keynote speaker at the Oct. 30 Sussex County/Today & Tomorrow Conference. “There are some barriers. The very first barrier that is documented in the research is really when you were born. It’s by the luck of the draw. It’s your ZIP Code that determined how well you get out of the gate and where your beginning point is in life.”

Carolyn O’Neal, representing CHEER Inc., addresses the need for more transportation for Sussex County’s growing senior population. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

Education/training, transportation, affordable housing, a growing senior population and labor workforce stood as focal pillars as attendees, stakeholders and panelists pondered issues and potential solutions to social mobility in diverse Sussex County.

“Bill Gates didn’t have any barriers. His wife Melinda, the main barrier she had was gender,” said Ms. Taylor. “If a person is in Sussex County in Delaware, there is numerous barriers, from age, ZIP Code, schooling, ability to have transportation. All of those things really impede an individual’s ability to be able to move from one place to the next.”

Ms. Taylor added research indicates it is “extremely hard to move from one class to the next. The work that we are doing collectively with our partners is to try to level that.”

The theme of the 26th Today & Tomorrow Conference — Social Mobility: Making Changes/Moving Forward — was fueled by some rather alarming data, according to Dr. Bobbi Barends, vice president/campus director of Delaware Technical Community College.

“In Sussex County, the homelessness increased more than 50 percent from 2018 to 2019,” said Dr. Barends. “About 30 percent of all Sussex County households — 48 percent renters, 26 homeowners — are housing cost-burdened, which means they spent 30 percent or more of their income each month on housing costs.”

Dr. Barends issued a call for action.

CHEER community relations spokeswoman Carolyn O’Neal made a pitch for more support for the county’s senior population, whose growth rate is much faster than the national average.

“I think we need to look at the demographics of our population, especially with the influx of seniors. Many of them are not driving anymore; many of them should not be driving anymore,” said Ms. O’Neal. “We need to think about public transportation for seniors. CHEER has 17 buses that we put on the road to our senior centers. That’s not enough. I really think we need to consider our senior population. It seems to be the white elephant in the room every time you talk about things.”

“Our population is growing faster than the other two counties, and it has been for many years now, I think it is time for us to catch up and be able to do more here,” said David Baker, former Sussex County finance director and county administrator.

Dr. Darren Blackston, director at Delaware State University, offered three factors that impact social mobility in Sussex County: opportunities in grade K-12; opportunities for secondary attainment through training or degree; and livable wage.

“I think that is really important for Sussex County to embrace the post-secondary opportunities,” Dr. Blackston said, adding “a living wage creates social mobility for individuals …”

Paulette Rappa, director of The Way Home program that works with ex-offenders who have done their time in incarceration, shared their challenges as pretty much standing “on the lowest of the low on that social mobility ladder.”

“Sussex County is starting to use more behavioral health resources, but I can tell you this last month that they released 24 to homelessness,” Ms. Rappa said.

Affordable housing

Kevin Gilmour, executive director for Sussex County Habitat for Humanity, said the idea is how to change that arrogance from lack of affordable housing to what it is really is.

“It is a societal problem,” Mr. Gilmour said. “How are we connecting to transportation? How are we connecting to the job creation and looking at it as an issue that affects all of us?”

In addressing social mobility in Sussex County, Habitat for Humanity “promotes hope, builds home and creates community,” said Habitat board member Mike Nally. “It is also a model that helps leverage with a hand up, not a handout. So, it creates confidence and these skills that change generations, creates hope and social mobility for families. That is a shining example of success in Sussex County.”

Affordable housing is on Sussex County Council’s radar.

John Rieley, among several county council members in attendance, made note of a six-month study and recent report on affordable housing by a consultant contracted by the county.

“It’s not the final form in all of its full detail, but it is going to get you 90 percent of it. Essentially, it outlines the issue and highlights particularly three — potentially more — but at least three primary solutions,” said Mr. Rieley. “One of them revolves around offering increased density in exchange for some housing units that are offered at below market rates. It’s entirely voluntary. It’s entirely market-driven. I believe that is what is going to make it sustainable.”

Additional funding for rehabilitation/maintaining the existing stock was another recommendation by the consultant firm along with a third: potentially creating a pool of money that would be utilized to assist with potentially projects that may not otherwise be viable.

“We’re talking about it,” said Mr. Rieley.

Workforce

Joe Conaway, chair of the Sussex Economic Development Action Committee (SEDAC) that was founded following the 2007 Sussex County Today & Tomorrow Conference, addressed the continuing exodus of young adults in quest of livable employment.

“For years SEDAC has been talking about this problem. We have to do a better job,” said Mr. Conaway, former school administrator and a past Sussex County administrator. “We talk about young people. The 18-to-25 year-old group in country, we have the highest outmigration. That has to stop. You look around Sussex, our folks are old. There is nobody going to care of us if we don’t get our young people to stay here. And they don’t stay here because they can’t make any money. We have got to stop that. That means more jobs, and jobs that pay. Not just a good salary for Sussex but a salary that is good — period. Our education system has to get better. I think it does a pretty good job. I think it gets a lot of bad raps that are from people who don’t know what is going on in the schools. But it has got to change. It has got to better.”

“We want more families to be financially stable and empowered. We want them to have the livable wage. How do we help?” said Ms. Taylor. “How do we help more people win the social mobility marathon?”

Delaware Secretary of Labor Cerron Cade, who provided closing remarks and was among the breakout discussion panelists, said the Department of Labor has enhanced communication lines as a resource for those out of work, looking for work and currently employed.

“As an agency we didn’t have a communication center as an agency,” said Sec. Cade, who assumed the cabinet position in January 2018. “Part of it was how we see ourselves. I don’t think we saw ourselves as a resource. I think we only saw ourselves as regulatory entity responsible for making sure you got workers’ compensation. We have established a communications team. We’ve put together communication plans so that we can better market the services that we have, so that our service providers as well as employers can view us a resource rather than as some type of threatening entity. We want you to have a different feeling when we knock on your and say, ‘We are the Department of Labor. We’re here to talk to you.’”

Sec. Cade said the department’s mission is to work very closely Delaware Tech and the entire K-12 school system, particularly vocational/technical schools, to “make sure they are constantly aware of growing industries, growing fields. And we would love to work more closely with nonprofit organizations and community groups as well to make sure that you get access to that data that we release.”

“We have a belief at the Department of Labor that the greatest social program that exists is good paying jobs – not only because it adds to people’s bank accounts, but it has to do with lives and opportunities. It strengthens our communities. We can’t have a strong economy unless we have those building blocks in place,” said Sec. Cade. “We have to be able to adapt. And remember, what we’re good at. Just because you’re adapting to a changing environment doesn’t mean that you throw away the things that you’re good at.”

Education

“At United Way, I am really passionate about a few things in the work we are doing that I think are all tied to social mobility. One: What can we do as a community to ensure that more kids actually are reading on grade level by the third grade?” said Ms. Taylor. “And why that is important is because where kids are by the end of third grade is a strong indication of where they’ll finish out.”

Public libraries in Sussex County were offered as an educational resource that are free, and perhaps sometimes underutilized. Organizations such as First State Community Action Agency and the Boys & Girls Clubs were saluted as valuable resources.

Strength in numbers

“I’ve been sitting here listening to the conversations and I think one of our strengths is relying on people like you in the room, but we also rely on clients and people that we trying to serve,” said Bruce Wright, program manager for First State Community Action Agency. “So, the important thing that we do is we get an interview and talk to those individuals that we provide services to, to find out what their real barriers are, what their strengths are and what support they need.”

“The greatest strength here is the non-profit organizations. If not for the nonprofits we would be really be hurting,” said community advocate Lynne Betts. “We have had to learn out of necessity the last five years that we can’t keep fighting for the same pot of money. We have to work together.”

“The Sussex County Health Coalition is a shining example of training for us,” Ms. Betts added. “If it wasn’t for (state) grant in aid and Sussex County Council grants I don’t know where we’d be right now.”

“Working together is the best way to get things done and partnerships really is our middle name at Delaware Tech,” said DTCC President Dr. Mark Brainard. “We’re here to today to talk about mobility. We connect somebody in our community with a well-paying job and they’ll provide for their families. They’ll become a strong asset to the community.”

“We believe that the solution really is around collective impact if we are really going to get some improve social mobility. That is not about working in our silos if we are going to be able to achieve this,” said Ms. Taylor. “I think we help a lot of people, but I don’t think we help enough people. I think that we do good work but sometimes good isn’t enough to really get to the impact we are ultimately trying to get.”

Resources

Ms. Taylor offered two valuable resources: Delaware 2-1-1 and $tand By Me, which she noted may be underutilized.

Delaware 2-1-1 is a free, confidential service that provides one central resource for access to the health and human service organizations that offer the support to make a difference.

$tand By Me, another free service, offers one-on-one support to Delawareans who want to understand more about their money, make good financial decisions, improve credit scores and achieve financial goals.

“If I am going to do the same thing why do I expect different results?” said Ms. Taylor. “What can we do different?”

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