Fairfax County’s school board was briefed Monday by school and county officials who are working together on a new effort to attack the root causes of poverty.

Before we talk about that initiative, though, let’s talk about this: What does it mean, exactly, to be poor in Fairfax?

It means you’re really hurting. You’re poor, according to the federal government, if your family of four subsists on an income of less than $22,350 a year.

If your family of four is living on $23,000, you’re not technically in poverty — no matter how much you’re struggling.

The number of officially poor folks in Fairfax grew 30 percent between 2008 and 2010, to more than 62,000 people — a pretty staggering increase for what is often considered one of the nation’s wealthiest suburbs.

These figures were presented Monday to the board and a mostly empty public gallery. At-Large member Tina Hone said she wished parents who show up in droves to speak on other issues — such as foreign language and music — would become more interested in the plight of the county’s least fortunate.

“There is a general — I fear — lack of understanding amongst those who are not in poverty in Fairfax County that having a quarter of our kids in poverty impacts them,” she said.

Here’s a map of the distribution of poverty in Fairfax, shown to school board members Monday:


Unlike densely concentrated urban poverty, suburban poverty exists in widely dispersed pockets, said Deputy County Executive Patricia Harrison, one of Monday’s presenters.

“That challenges our system to really change how we’re doing business,” she said. “We have to take our service system into the communities and the neighborhoods that are most affected.”

Along with Kim Dockery (assistant superintendent for special services) and Karla Bruce (division director, Department of Community and Recreation Services), Harrison explained Monday that the schools and the county are working together to focus their scarce resources on the neediest neighborhoods.

The aim of this “opportunity neighborhoods” initiative is to do away with the walls that separate various social service agencies from each other and from schools, creating a tightly woven network that supports a child from birth to adulthood — or, as it’s often put, from cradle to college and career.

The idea is that if children’s socioeconomic status and academic achievement are linked, then it makes sense for schools to coordinate with social services agencies to make sure the children are getting whatever help is available.

In Fairfax, school and county officials are already working together to make sure poor children have access to books and reading instruction during the summer. They’re having literacy teachers train county SACC (after-school care) staff in how to reinforce good reading habits. And they are working to make sure homeless children’s families are connected quickly to rental assistance and other housing programs.

The first opportunity neighborhood is the Mt. Vernon district, where schools and the county government are already working with faith-based groups, community organizations and the private sector (in particular, Capital One bank). Next up will be Annandale, then the Herndon/South Lakes area.