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2018 Presidential Initiative: Healthy Virginia Counties in Action – Spotlight on Economic Health

Throughout our explorations of various elements of community health – nutrition, physical activity, mental health, early childhood – financial well-being has been an ever-present factor, underlying questions of access to nutritious food, safe areas to exercise, mental health treatment, and high-quality pre-kindergarten programs. A maxim entering common circulation in the public health field is that your ZIP code may be a better predictor of your health outcomes than your genetic code, and of course there is considerable variation in wealth among ZIP codes, for many complex reasons. Poverty is a complicated issue and this column will only be able to scratch the surface, but my hope is that it provides some baseline information about poverty in Virginia. In my next column, I’ll be sharing some success stories from counties that are working to create economically vibrant communities.

How is poverty defined?
The Census Bureau uses a set of thresholds to define poverty based on money income before taxes, such as wages, Social Security payments, pensions, or public assistance (but excluding non-cash assistance such as Medicaid or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Payment benefits). This threshold varies by the age of the householder (younger or older than 65) and the number of children in the household. For example, the poverty threshold for a household of three, including one child under 18, would be $19,730. The poverty threshold for one person younger than 65 would be $12,752. These thresholds are updated annually to reflect inflation based on the Consumer Price Index, but are not tailored to reflect geographical variations in cost of living. In fact, the Census Bureau cautions that the thresholds are “intended for use as a statistical yardstick, not as a complete description of what people and families need to live.”

How is Virginia doing?
Virginia is generally considered to be a relatively wealthy state; the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission’s annual publication, Virginia Compared to the Other States, most recently ranked Virginia 12th in per capita personal income. Virginia’s unemployment rate is low at 3 percent, as recently announced by Governor Northam. Recent Census Bureau statistics showed Virginia’s 2017 poverty rate at 10.6 percent, the 11th-lowest rate among states. However, this overall strong showing masks variation within the state geographically, with some localities’ poverty rates much lower and others much higher. Similarly, poverty rates within the state vary among demographic categories; the poverty rate among white Virginians is 8.5 percent, while the rate is 17.9 percent for African-American Virginians and 13.7 percent for Virginians of Hispanic or Latino origin. The same set of statistics reports an overall child poverty rate of 14 percent in Virginia. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation breaks this measure down by locality and then by demographic within each locality; 2016 breakdowns are available at this link.

As the Census Bureau noted, the federal poverty thresholds do not tell the entire story of financial health for families. The United Way’s ALICE Project is an attempt to quantify the number of “working poor” households in communities; ALICE stands for “Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed,” and represents households earning income above the federal poverty threshold, but not enough to cover basic necessities such as housing, child care, and health care. The Virginia ALICE report concludes that 28 percent of Virginia households fell into this category in 2015, in addition to the 11 percent whose incomes fell below the traditional federal measure of poverty. The researchers generated these figures by developing a “Household Survival Budget” for each locality that estimates costs for housing, child care, food, transportation, and health care, and determining how many households earn incomes below that threshold (both for households headed by someone younger than 65 and for someone 65 or older).

The Virginia Department of Health’s Plan for Well-Being places economic health at the top of its list of goals for the state. “Virginia’s families maintain economic stability” is the first goal under the broad aim of “Healthy, Connected Communities,” and this goal is to be measured in four ways: an increase in the percentage of high school graduates enrolled in an institution of higher education within 16 months after graduation; a decrease in the percentage of cost-burdened households (those spending more than 30 percent of monthly income on housing); an increase in the Consumer Opportunity Profile (a measure of housing and transportation affordability, education, and access to food and other material needs) and an increase in the Economic Opportunity Profile (which measures employment levels and income inequality). The most recent update on this goal indicated that Virginia has met its targets for increases in the Consumer and Economic Opportunity Profiles, held steady from 2017 to 2018 on higher education enrollment, and backslid slightly on housing cost burdens.

What is the state doing to improve economic stability for Virginians?
Economic development is a top priority for each Administration, and state leadership is constantly working to recruit new businesses and encourage existing businesses to expand. Counties are key partners in these efforts, as businesses are often seeking quality-of-life elements, such as top-flight K-12 systems and safe neighborhoods, to which localities are major contributors. Counties also seek out new businesses, help to support existing industries, promote tourism, and encourage entrepreneurship through support of business incubators and other efforts.

Income support programs, such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), help families meet basic needs. Most of these programs are funded through federal dollars, though some require a state match or a maintenance of effort, and the state contributes administrative funds for program staff. Eligibility determinations are generally performed at local departments of social services, and local governments supply a match for program staff. Many localities also make contributions above and beyond the required match.

Another critical aspect of combatting poverty is equipping workers with the skills they need to secure a job that pays a living wage. State and local leaders have increasingly recognized the importance of family-supporting jobs that do not require a bachelor’s degree, but do require some form of post-secondary education. Legislation that passed in 2016 created the New Economy Workforce Credential Grant Program, which helps to pay for students to earn workforce credentials, such as certifications or licenses, without the need for them to enroll in credit-bearing courses. The program, implemented as “Fast Forward Virginia,” recently marked the awarding of its 10,000th credential, with the recipient moving from work as a laborer in a scrap metal yard to a 40 percent increase in pay in an advanced manufacturing job. VACo supported the creation of this program in 2016, and is excited to host a session on workforce development, including Fast Forward Virginia, at the upcoming Annual Conference.

Counties across Virginia are rising to the challenge of building economically resilient communities, and I look forward to showcasing some of these efforts later this month.

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