- The Washington Times - Monday, September 26, 2011

Virginia is home to four of 10 richest counties in the nation, yet the statewide child poverty rate is at its highest level since 1998 and the number of residents who live in deep poverty has jumped by more than 20 percent since 2007, according to newly released census data.

Nearly 260,000 children were living in households below the federal poverty line — $22,000 a year for a household of four — in 2010, up 14.4 percent from 2007. The 14.2 percent rate is the highest since 1998, according to figures from the Census Bureau’s one-year American Community Survey that were analyzed by the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis.

There were also 374,894 Virginians living in “deep poverty,” defined as about $11,000 a year for a family of four. That figure represents a 20 percent jump from 2007, data showed. Just less than 5 percent of the state’s population fell into that category in 2010.

“These numbers are a stark reminder that even though the recession officially ended in 2009, the economic damage is lasting,” said Sarah Okos, policy director for the left-leaning Commonwealth Institute.

The new numbers are in stark contrast to figures that show four Virginia counties — Loudoun, Fairfax, Arlington and Stafford — placed in the nation’s top 10 in median household income in 2010.

Even Fairfax County, whose $103,010 median household income was second-highest in the country in 2010, is not immune to the problem of poverty. In the past 12 months, 5.8 percent of county residents lived below the poverty level, though that was still about half of the statewide rate of 11.1 percent.

The county is in the middle of a 10-year plan passed in 2008 to end homelessness by employing a combination of nonprofit partnerships, corporate involvement and prevention efforts.

“The need for investing in human services has become very apparent,” said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon S. Bulova, at-large Democrat. “This hands-on approach toward working with the homeless population has whetted an appetite among members of the community to really do something about it.”

According to the county, the number of people who were homeless in the Fairfax-Falls Church community has decreased by about 15.6 percent from 1,835 in 2008 to 1,549 in 2011. However, new data also show that those living in shelters in the area are having an even more difficult time finding employment and making ends meet.

“The census information has shed even more light on the fact that so many more people in our community are on the verge of homelessness or not able to afford to live in the area,” said Dean Klein, director of the county’s Office to Prevent and End Homelessness.

The percentage of adults in families in the county who live in homeless shelters and are employed was down slightly from last year to 60 percent.

“People are having more and more challenges to find employment and survive in our community,” said Mr. Klein, adding that the average monthly income for those families was $1,200.

Further, just 19 percent of single adults living in shelters reported employment, Mr. Klein said.

“Their monthly incomes are dropping. Their ability to find employment is dropping,” he said. “Those are major indicators in the challenges we have ahead in ending homelessness.”

Statewide, the Virginia Department of Social Services is developing a program called the “Strengthening Families Initiative,” which seeks to reduce poverty and dependence on state services by reducing out-of-wedlock births, reconnecting fathers with their children and encouraging the maintenance of “safe, stable, intact, two-parent families.”

But the Commonwealth Institute argued in a recent report that the state needs to make a greater investment in the social safety net despite other economic pressures the state faces.

State revenues remain at prerecession levels and the need for such public services as food stamps and Medicaid are at their highest levels since the recession began, according to the report.

And the state still faces an $800 million shortfall in its next biennial budget, based on the 2012 funding levels and adjusted for the states own projections of spending changes in 2013 and 2014.

The state has relied on a combination of cuts, federal stimulus dollars and money from its rainy day fund to close revenue shortfalls in recent years — an approach that is not sustainable in the long run as one-time fixes such as stimulus dollars dry up, the report states.

However, proposals to raise revenue are likely to be met with skepticism in the General Assembly.

Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax Republican, lauded the General Assembly’s fiscal stewardship during the recession and said he hopes to see a different kind of government as the state climbs back from the economic downturn.

“It’s called a recession. It’s called budget cuts,” Mr. Albo said. “I happen to be a person who wants to reinvent government and wants to get away from all these welfare services and start investing it in infrastructure. … That’s my main goal.”

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