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September 14, 2017

New Income and Poverty Data Shows How Improving Economy Helps Virginia Families, Yet Too Many Are Still Left Behind

According to new Census data released today, Virginia has the 9th highest income out of all states and the District of Columbia. Median household income in Virginia was $68,100 in 2016, well above the national median of $57,600.  Overall, household income in Virginia is up 1.8 percent from the prior year after adjusting for inflation.

However, this growth was slower than in the U.S. as a whole, which was 2.4 percent from 2015 to 2016, and many Virginians are still struggling. Almost 900,000 people – 11.0 percent of Virginians – are living with incomes below the poverty line, not statistically different than the 11.2 percent in 2015. And over 260,000 children in Virginia – 14.3 percent of all Virginia children – are living in families with less income than the poverty rate.

Unequal Opportunity

Regional Variation

Median household incomes varied widely in 2016 by metropolitan area, from $48,500 in the Lynchburg metro area to $95,800 in the Washington area (which includes the District of Columbia and parts of Maryland). For large metro areas in Virginia, the Washington region was the only one with a statistically significant change from the prior year. Incomes in this metro area increased by $1,400 to $95,800 – a 1.5 percent increase, which is a slightly lower rate than the state as a whole. The DC region slipped in 2016 to third highest-income metro area in the country behind San Jose and San Francisco due to the tech industry driving very rapid income growth in the San Francisco bay area.


The Winchester metro area saw the largest statistically significant drop in its poverty rate to 5.5 percent in 2016 from 9.3 percent the prior year. Winchester is now tied with Charlottesville for the lowest poverty rate of any metro area in Virginia. Virginia Beach metro area also had a large drop in its poverty rate to 7.9 percent from 9.3 percent.


Barriers for Communities of Color

Due to structural barriers faced by communities of color, Black and Latinx Virginians are more likely than non-Hispanic White and Asian Virginians to be living on very low incomes. Eighteen percent of Black Virginians and 16 percent of Hispanic or Latinx Virginians live with incomes below the poverty line, which means less than $20,160 for a family of three in 2016. Eight percent of non-Hispanic White Virginians live on less than the poverty line, as do 7 percent of Asian-American Virginians.

Median household incomes also lags for communities of color in Virginia, particularly Black and African-American families and individuals. Households headed by Black and African-American Virginians had a median household income of $47,300 in 2016, well below the $60,500 for households headed by Hispanic or Latinx Virginians. And median incomes for both those groups lagged those for non-Hispanic White-headed households ($74,000) and Asian-headed households ($97,300).  

Solutions: Tackling Long-Standing Challenges

The most recent data shows the long-standing barriers in our state. Virginia’s cities and counties continue to have a relatively high level of de facto segregation by both race and economic circumstances, and this drives schools to be segregated along the same lines.  And with immigrant communities and Black communities both facing historical and contemporary barriers to employment opportunities, this results in their children being disproportionately stuck in schools of concentrated disadvantage. 

There are policy solutions that can close the gaps. One tool our state already has available is the At-Risk Add-On program, which provides additional funds to support the education of students from low-income families. The state should boost support for this program to make it more in-line with other states. Also, regional strategies of “controlled choice” enrollment could be used to promote choice and diversity within public schools.

But educational inequalities are not the only causes of lower wages for Black and Latinx Virginians. Discrimination on the part of employers can’t be ignored. Matched-pair experimental studies have shown a variety of scenarios of employment discrimination most targeted against Blacks, but against Latinxs as well. And discrimination on the part of landlords, real estate agents, and mortgage lenders contribute to residential segregation. African American and Latinx home buyers face higher rejection rates and less favorable mortgage terms than white applicants with similar credit histories.

To counteract these barriers, the state should strengthen its fair housing laws to include banning discrimination against those who use Housing Choice vouchers to pay their rent. Fair housing laws need to be understood by real estate professions and by families, and then the laws need to be enforced. Local governments should reform their zoning practices to foster inclusion. And barriers to getting to and from work need to be addressed – with broader access to drivers’ licenses and better public transit between communities of color and areas with employment opportunities.

Virginia is already a relatively high-income state on average, yet we could be stronger and better-off if we remove the barriers facing too many in our communities and make sure real opportunity reaches every corner of the state.

Chad Stewart

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