The numbers say southern New Jersey is struggling economically, with the highest levels of unemployment in the state, lots of foreclosures, and incomes that are the lowest and stagnant.

I wonder, though, if we aren't better off than economic data suggest. Resistance to development of all kinds, even in the depths of the worst recession we'll probably see in our lifetimes, makes me suspect we are.

Last month, Millville rejected a proposal to build a $2.5 million asphalt plant in an industrial park that would have created about 40 union jobs. The plant would have paid an estimated $100,000 to $140,000 a year in municipal taxes (enough to cover the pay and benefits of an experienced teacher).

Vineland had previously denied the asphalt plant a location in its industrial park. Back at the start of the recession, Dennisville preemptively voted to outlaw asphalt plants as soon as a company expressed interest there.

Other significant business investments are finding the going tough, too.

In Cape May, there is substantial opposition to allowing a failed movie theater to be replaced. The rescuers of a failed housing project in downtown Absecon are having trouble shedding its age restriction. Millville has rezoned land owned by Wawa to reduce its development potential. Even in Atlantic City, the largest casino union is still doing all it can to oppose the Revel casino hotel project.

I'm not advocating one way or the other in any of these cases, which all must be decided on their individual merits.

They make me wonder, though. Isn't our selectiveness in economic development is a sign that we are well enough off to be selective?

The situation reminds me of a clever study on estimating hunger and the number of people too poor to eat enough.

Two economists - Robert Jensen, of the University of California at Los Angeles, and Nolan Miller, of the University of Illinois - surveyed the eating habits of 16,000 people in nine Chinese provinces.

Two-thirds of those people were undernourished by the conventional government measure of reporting that they consumed fewer than 2,100 calories a day.

But the economists looked at something slightly different: How many of their calories did people get from cheap staple foods such as rice?

The economists found that only one-third of the Chinese surveyed were minimizing their food costs by using staple foods effectively. The rest were making food choices on some basis other than getting the most food for the least cost.

That suggests that half of those considered hungry could in fact eat more food if they wished.

I wonder if something of this sort applies in southern New Jersey.

Official measures suggest we should have a powerful bias in favor of economic development of most any kind, as we proceed into the fourth year of a severe economic downturn.

And yet, we readily find other choices to make, often quality of life preferences much less basic than whether someone has work and a paycheck at all.

Could it be we're all better off than we think?

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