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September 18, 2015

A Little Better Isn’t Good Enough

The good news is that after far too many years of recession, slow recovery, and stagnant incomes, Virginia families finally started to see their incomes recover in 2014. But here comes the bad news: even with that growth, Virginia’s median household income of $64,900 is still 4.6 percent – $3,100 – below inflation-adjusted 2007 median household income.

In other words, Virginians are doing slightly better but it’s like climbing up a few flights of stairs after taking the express elevator all the way down to the basement of a 20-story building. There’s still a long way to go.

Statewide, median household income and median family income both grew 2 percent in 2014 compared to 2013 levels after adjusting for inflation, according to data released this week by the Census Bureau. And several of Virginia’s larger metro areas also saw increases in median household income in 2014. (Tables with data by metro area: Table 1: Poverty, Table 2: Income).

But in some respects, we’re not doing so well compared to other states.  In some states, growth in employment, income, and the state minimum wage helped reduce the number of families living in poverty. But Virginia saw little progress. In particular, the 18 states that increased their minimum wages in 2014 generally saw pay increase for lower-income workers. And they were more likely than other states to see decreases in poverty. In Virginia, however, which did not increase its minimum wage, the lowest-paid workers saw smaller wage gains in 2014 than was typical in the states that increased their minimum wages. And there was no decrease in Virginia’s poverty rate.

Overall, Virginia still ranks as one of the best educated and highest income states in the country, with relatively low rates of poverty compared to the national average. Virginia’s median household income remained the 8th highest of any state (excluding the District of Columbia), and Loudoun, Fairfax, and Arlington continued to have the highest median incomes of all large counties in the United States. But incomes are still lower than in 2010, and Virginia’s poverty rate is still stuck at unacceptably high levels, six years into an economic recovery.

The fact is too many Virginians struggle to make ends meet even though they work hard. State policymakers can’t control everything, but they can step up to the plate to boost wages, make sure all kids get a great start, and make common-sense investments to set Virginia on the road to long-term growth in jobs and productivity. We’d all benefit from that.

Levi Goren

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