Northern Virginia boasts some of the nation’s wealthiest counties, but nestled among the affluence are pockets of poverty with an outsize effect on minority residents, according to a new report.
Loudoun County, the wealthiest in the country, boasts a median income of $122,238 and a poverty rate of 4 percent. But in one census tract near Leesburg, 20 percent of children live in poverty, and just more than half of residents have a high school diploma.
The report, from Virginia Commonwealth University's Center on Society and Health and the Northern Virginia Health Foundation, also examined data on the city of Alexandria, as well as in Arlington, Fairfax and Prince William counties.
“Across this country, there has been an increase in suburban poverty, but the face of it looks very different than what we are used to seeing in urban and even rural communities,” said Steven Woolf, the lead author of the study and director of the VCU Center on Society and Health. “This poverty exists against the backdrop of golf resorts, McMansions and seemingly affluent conditions.”
The study, “Getting Ahead: The Uneven Opportunity Landscape in Northern Virginia,” found that, overwhelmingly, it is those of color who live in poorer neighborhoods. And these neighborhoods, despite their proximity to resources and wealth, shape residents’ health and education outcomes.
The average life expectancy of a child born in an affluent census tract can be as much as 18 years more than those in the poorest, according to the report, ranging from 71 to 89 years across Northern Virginia.
“Neighborhoods with lower life expectancy tend to have other poor health outcomes, including not only illnesses and injuries among children and adolescents, but also higher rates of physical disease, mental illness and premature death among adults — as well as higher health-care costs to treat these conditions,” the study states.
A census tract has an average of about 4,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The portion of Northern Virginia included in the report has 513 census tracts.
In one Fairfax County tract, in the Lake Barcroft neighborhood, 78 percent of residents have at least a college degree, and more than 80 percent of its 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in school.
But in the neighboring Baileys Crossroads census tract, 14 percent of residents have at least a college degree, and virtually no children ages 3 and 4 are enrolled in school, the report says.
The report states that Hispanics and African Americans comprise 17 percent and 11 percent of Northern Virginians, respectively, yet minorities are often clustered into some of the region’s poorest areas.
In a low-income tract of Arlandria, at the Alexandria and Arlington County line, 25 percent of the population is Hispanic, and 42 percent black. In the Southern Towers community in Alexandria, 72 percent of the population is black. High housing costs make it difficult for residents to leave lower-income areas, according to the report.
The report also found that Asian Americans tended to live in tracts that were more affluent than those of other minorities. For example, the Brambleton area of Loudoun County is one of the 20 wealthiest tracts in Northern Virginia, with a median household income of $198,680. In that tract, Asians make up 46 percent of the population, and whites account for 40 percent.
Woolf said solutions to close the disparities have to come from the private and public sectors. Basic needs — such as food, housing and health care — must be addressed, he said, as should better access to employment and education. Investments in infrastructure and public safety would also help lift the region’s poorest residents, the study says.
Woolf was critical of the Republican tax plan being hammered out, joining the plan’s detractors, who say that it would benefit big businesses and hurt the nation’s most vulnerable people, including in Northern Virginia.
“We think there are business opportunities in trying to invest in improving these conditions,” he said. “The government can do more. I think the current direction that the government is taking is the opposite of what we need.”