Virginia a leader in wage disparity

October 11, 2011

The gulf between high-wage and low-wage workers in the region continued to widen during the fragile economic recovery and has reached a 30-year-high in Virginia, a report released Tuesday said.

The top 10 percent of wage earners in Virginia now make almost six times more than than those in the bottom 10 percent, according to a study by the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a nonprofit think tank focused on how fiscal decisions impact low-income Virginians. This is the second-highest gap in the country, second only to New Jersey. The District is ranked fourth by this measure; Maryland, sixth.

In its report “Unbalanced, Unequal and Undercut,” the institute examined recent data from the U.S. Census and found that during the recession, college-educated and high-income earners saw their fortunes rise while low-wage workers with less education saw their wages drop.

“The recession has not hit everyone equally,” said Michael Cassidy, the organization’s president. “In fact, while many have been hit pretty hard, certain sectors and certain high-wage earners have done pretty well.”

The gap was driven by the growth in jobs and salaries in Northern Virginia, with its thriving technology corridor and a booming federal contracting industry that generated $80 billion in revenue this year. Workers in this growing professional, scientific and technology services industry — which added 24,000 jobs since the recession — now make an average of $1,956 a week, compared with the lowest-paid food service workers who make $333 a week.

Although real average weekly wages have increased in Virginia, employment levels have not, the report said. The state’s greatest job losses since the start of the recession have been in jobs formerly held by the middle class in manufacturing and in construction, a victim of the housing bubble bursting. The state’s construction industry alone lost 54,000 jobs since the start of the recession.

“The downturn for the most part put me out of business,” said George Cook, 54, a real estate appraiser who was seeking job counseling Tuesday at the Arlington Employment Center. His income dropped from $60,000 in 2006 to about $5,000 last year.

Cook said he has been taking temporary painting and lawn care jobs and has had to move his family out of their home and into a rental apartment to make ends meet.

Annie Gowen is The Post’s India bureau chief and has reported for the Post throughout South Asia and the Middle East.
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