The Deconcentration of Poverty in Virginia: Where do We Begin?


This past spring, Housing Virginia invited partners and supporters from around the state to discuss the issue of the concentration of poverty in Virginia and what role Housing Virginia might play in helping to address this challenge.


Guest presenters Elizabeth Kneebone (Brookings Institute) and Thad Williamson (City of Richmond Office of Community Wealth Building) brought national, state and Richmond region data to the table, which supplemented the group discussion about solutions later in the day.


VA map - poverty rate



The data paints a stark picture: Ms. Kneebone noted that the number of poor Virginians living in tracts with poverty rates of at least 20% has roughly doubled since 2000. The economic recession is beginning to recede for those in the upper to middle class, but the low-income populations have been much slower to recover from the effects of the economic downturn.


Graph 1

Source: Elizabeth Kneebone, The Brookings Institute (presentation linked at bottom of post)


While Virginia’s concentrated poverty is lower than the average for all states, the trend is moving in the wrong direction. Since 2000, the share of Virginia’s poor population in extremely poor and high poverty tracts has risen 1.4% in the 40% tracts and 10.7% in the 20% tracts.


Graph 2

Source: Elizabeth Kneebone, The Brookings Institute (presentation linked at bottom of post)


Perhaps the most discouraging piece of data is that the fastest growth in concentrated poverty occurred in 2010-14, indicating that the poverty continued to grow even as the recession ended.


These concentrations of poverty are further compounded by race, especially in the tracts with poverty rates of 40% or more, with black Americans making up the largest percentage of these neighborhoods.


As the economic cycle rises and falls, many of these communities are the last in and first out. But it’s not just the economy that matters – decisions around housing, subsidies, land use, and zoning also shape these trends. In order to address the issue of growing concentration of poverty in Virginia, reinvestment strategies should be balanced with mobility opportunities. More places – outside the urban core – are now beginning to struggle with the challenges of poverty and concentrated disadvantage, so regional strategies (housing, transportation, economic development) are critical to addressing the scale of these growing challenges.


In Richmond:

Richmond in particular is often singled out for its concentration of poverty. Thad Williamson explained that this is why the City decided to take action by creating the Office of Community Wealth Building within the Mayor’s Office. The Richmond Metro Area ranks 85 out of the 100 largest metro areas in upward social mobility. Compared to the state, the poverty rate is higher and median income is lower:


Screen Shot 2016-06-22 at 10.32.38 AM

Source: Thad Williamson, City of Richmond Office of Community Wealth Building (presentation linked at bottom of post)


Instead of asking “What should society as a whole do about poverty?” Mr. Williamson urged City policymakers to ask “What can we as a City and community do to alter these trends?” The Office of Community Wealth Building aims to answer this question through community coordination, planning, partnership, research and evaluation, accountability, and communication. The Office acts as a hub and catalyst that oversees workforce development.


Mr. Williamson further highlighted revitalization efforts in Richmond’s East End as one of the many initiatives the City is taking to move towards the deconcentration of poverty.


Richmond revitalization


During the group discussion, leaders and community members from around the state talked about what role Housing Virginia could take to assist communities around the state to combat the concentration of poverty.


The group suggested that Housing Virginia consider developing a number of data tools, including interactive maps, a poverty and opportunity index, and library of best practices. It was also widely agreed that Housing Virginia could also act as a convener of regional forums and discussions about how to deconcentrate poverty at the local level.


Housing Virginia will explore opportunities to work with community, business, and policy leaders around the state to implement the ideas discussed at this meeting. The issue of concentrated poverty intersects with many of Housing Virginia’s other program areas, such as housing and schools, housing and health, rural housing, and overcoming NIMBY.


You can download the day’s presentations here: