Christine Hooper and her partner Cindy Pidgeon are betting on Burlington City seeing better days. Hooper opened her fashion boutique in June 2020, amidst the pandemic.
First Lady Dr. Jill Biden is coming to Burlington County on Monday to kick off the national campaign for
President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. The choice is good politics and a hopeful sign the administration knows where America is hurting most as we muddle through this once in a century mass death event.
According to Feeding America, the nation’s leading anti-hunger non-profit, during the pandemic food insecurity has spiked by 48 percent in Burlington County, which also makes up most of New Jersey’s 3rd CD. The district is a nationally watched battleground that has flipped back and forth between the Democratic Party and Republican parties since the Democrats lost it in 2010.
Feeding America reports there are 17 million more Americans, including 11 million children, that are food insecure now than before COVID 19 hit. In Burlington County, the non-profit estimates that means the number of people who need some assistance with this most basic of human requirements has spiked from 33,330 to 52,450.
“Since the pandemic hit in March of 2020, the Food Bank of South Jersey has distributed over 22.5 million pounds of food, the equivalent of over 18.7 million meals, to more than 95,000 people each month struggling with food insecurity throughout South Jersey,” according to the The Food Bank of South Jersey.
In 2018, Democrat Andy Kim bested Republican incumbent Tom MacArthur, reclaiming the District for the Democrats. In addition to including most of Burlington County, which leans Democratic, it encompasses portions of Ocean County which tracks Republican.
It also happens to be one of 20 some odd Congressional districts , along with the 2nd CD, that flipped from voting for President Obama in 2012 to supporting Donald Trump over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016. In 2020, the 3rd CD went for President Trump by 0.2 percent over Biden, just one of a handful of districts nationwide that voted for Trump but sent a Democrat to the House.
It runs from the Atlantic Coast towns like Toms River, where over 80 percent of the residents are white, to Burlington City, that sits on the Delaware River, where the population is a majority of minorities with half of the residents identifying as Black. Two thirds of Burlington City High School’s population are students of color and 57 percent of the student body is economically disadvantaged, according to U.S. News and World Report.
Burlington City is where Ben Franklin was an apprentice printer, and it was also the birthplace of James Fennimore Cooper. It’s where Gen. Ulysses S. Grant moved during the Civil War, with his wife and four children, seeking some sanctuary. It’s downtown historic district, on the banks of the Delaware, is composed of Colonial era structures of national significance, that remain largely intact.
While most of the historical facades are in good condition, a few blocks in either direction from the historic downtown, there are some vacant buildings sprinkled amongst period brick residential row housing that are well maintained. The local municipal government is hoping to attract the significant investment it needs to reach its full potential as an historic and cultural destination the community visualizes along the banks of the Delaware.
“The City of Burlington, New Jersey is a treasure trove of American history, where William Penn’s Quakers founded West Jersey in 1677 based on then unique American concept that all races, sexes, nationalities, and religions deserved equal rights,” wrote Mayor Barry W. Conaway on the city’s website which has an effective marketing video.
Despite the pandemic, restaurants in the historic downtown are hanging on thanks to a mix of in-person dining and a boom in their carryout trade.
On Saturday night, a block over from the heart of the downtown, Christine Hooper’s inviting Chrisie Styles Boutique is still open for business. Hooper shares the space with her partner Cindy Pidgeon, who has her handbag and fashion accessory co-located in Hooper’s shop.
Hooper, who opened her shop in June in the midst of COVID, was excited about the First Lady coming to Burlington County. “We need more [government] funding, and we need more relief,” she said. But she added that the local economy also needed to be generating living wages.
“It would feed the circle of this whole community because our prices here are moderate, but some people here can’t afford a $45 pair of jeans or a $50 dress, but if they were earning more money, they’d be able to spend more money locally,” she said. “A living wage would definitely be helpful to our economy.”
“What the pandemic has revealed is that so many people are living on a lower wage and they had been barely making it and then they were out of work and there was no emergency fund because people are just living hand to mouth, paycheck to paycheck,” said Pidgeon. “It’s not right.”
In a Sunday interview, before the First Lady’s arrival, Mayor Conaway said he was thankful that the president and Congress had passed the American Rescue Plan so that “all of America” can get beyond the pandemic. “Everyone knew going into it that it would be more than a year and we are into the second year and it will probably not be until the end of this year that we get back to normal,” he said.
The Burlington City Mayor said that his city had never recovered from the 2008 Great Recession because it had actually “been in freefall since the 1960s when a lot of the industries, whether it be the ammunition plant, the dress factories, and the pipe foundry that left in the late 1990s and early 2000s. We’ve been in freefall since all that and we are trying to make ourselves a destination. So, everyone that lives in Burlington City has had their struggle and continue to struggle.”
Conaway concurred with Hooper and Pidgeon that a key building block to Burlington City’s revival was a broad-based prosperity that has as its foundation living wages and full employment.
“The United States needs to build up its training programs because not everyone wants to go to college and the craft end of things as a [construction] laborer, electrician, a pipefitter, or a carpenter—those are the jobs that provide a living wage that can take care of a family,” he said. “It would be nice to get money going to training programs so individuals could get their start on these huge infrastructure projects like the solar wind farm out in the Atlantic Ocean or the rail tunnel under the Hudson between New Jersey and New York. Why, even here in Burlington City we need some shoring up, since 80 percent of the city is in a flood zone.”
And the best thing about that kind of work reasoned Conaway is it can’t be outsourced overseas.
“With craft training it’s in your hands and your head and that talent is with you forever,” he said.