- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Northern Virginia, despite a median household income ranked among the highest in the country and an enviably low unemployment rate, has endured growing income inequality and a heightened need for public benefits compared with the rest of the state during the economic downturn, a new report shows.

To be sure, Northern Virginians across the income spectrum were hit, but lower-income workers were hit harder, according to a study released Tuesday by the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a left-leaning Richmond think tank that studies economic and policy issues.

Overall, the median household income in Northern Virginia dropped from $102,644 in 2007 to $98,747 in 2010.

But the decrease for the lowest 20 percent was 10.5 percent, while the median income for the highest 20 percent declined by just 3 percent, the report found.

“Not all workers or industries are benefiting from the overall success and benefits from the region,” Michael Cassidy, president of the Commonwealth Institute, said during a conference call Tuesday. “Significant economic challenges continue to face the region.”

And though Northern Virginia has weathered the recession better than other areas of the state — thanks in large part to its proximity to the federal government — the need for public assistance has risen sharply as well.

Since January 2007, the region saw a 131 percent jump in the number of people receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) benefits. Statewide, the increase was 77 percent.

Further, the number of people receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits has increased by more than 16 percent since 2007 in the region, but only 7 percent statewide.

Northern Virginia added 25,000 jobs in 2011 — accounting for 59 percent of all Virginia job growth — but factoring in the simultaneous expansion of its working-age population,the region also needs to add 100,000 jobs to return to prerecession levels, the report found.

“What this analysis shows more than anything is that even at the northern end of Virginia’s ‘golden crescent,’ the recovery still feels like the recession for large numbers of Virginians,” Mr. Cassidy said.

For the purposes of the study, Northern Virginia localities included Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Stafford, Prince William, Spotsylvania and Fauquier counties and the city of Alexandria. All those jurisdictions had preliminary unemployment rates of less than 5 percent in March, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Despite lingering economic uncertainty, the state overall has weathered the recession better than most as well. Its 5.6 percent unemployment rate in March is the lowest in the Southeast United States and the lowest number the state has seen in three years. The national unemployment rate in April was 8.1 percent.

Gov. Bob McDonnell and members of his Cabinet are currently on a weeklong tour crisscrossing the state to highlight some of the successes Virginia has seen over the past three years, such as record-breaking agricultural exports and high marks for its business-friendly environment.

“While difficult economic times are not completely behind us, and Virginia will continue to face challenges on the road to recovery, the commonwealth is showing significant signs that it is growing strong again,” Mr. McDonnell said in announcing the “Virginia: Growing Strong” tour.