Poverty imposes far-reaching hardships, not only on the poor but on all who share their communities. Virginia has a relatively low poverty rate -- it ranked 12th in the nation in 2014 – but it, too, has been affected by recent trends, with more than 1 in 10 residents now living below the federal poverty threshold.
Why is This Important?
Poverty has a significant impact on individuals and society at large. Children who live in poverty are likely to suffer from poor nutrition during infancy, experience emotional distress, and have an increased risk for academic failure and teenage pregnancy. Adult men and women who live in poverty are at high risk of poor health and violence. Poverty can also affect seniors' ability to care for themselves or to obtain prescription medication.
How is Virginia Doing?
Due to the recent recession and slow job growth, poverty rates in Virginia have seen small but steady increases for seven of the last eight years (the rate remained steady at 11.7% from 2012 to 2013). In 2014 Virginia's poverty rate increased slightly to 11.8 percent, the 12th lowest rate in the nation.
Among Virginia's peers, Maryland had the lowest poverty rate in 2014 at 10.1 percent, while North Carolina and Tennessee both had considerably higher rates -- 17.2 and 18.3 percent, respectively. New Hampshire again ranked best in the nation with a poverty rate of 9.2 percent, though this too is an increase from the 8.7 percent rate found in 2013. The national average decreased slightly: 15.5 percent in 2014 compared with 15.8 percent the previous year.
In 2014 poverty rates rose a bit for five regions (Northern, Southside, Southwest, Valley, and West Central), but dropped a bit for the Central, Eastern, and Hampton Roads regions. The Southside region continued to have the highest percentage (20.3%) of individuals living below the poverty level, followed by the Southwest (19.1%) region. With poverty levels around 15 to 16 percent, the Eastern and West Central regions didn't fare much better. At the other end of the scale, the Northern region (7.0%) had the lowest percentage of individuals living below the poverty level, followed by the Central (12.7%), Hampton Roads (13.0%), and Valley (13.5%) regions.
The poverty rate for Virginians below the age of 18 rose again in 2014, to 15.9 percent (from 14.9% the year before). Although higher, Virginia's rate is still considerably lower than the national average of 21.7 percent -- or more than one in five US children living below the poverty level.
What Influences Poverty?
Except for periods of economic recession -- which tend to create increased, if temporary, levels of poverty -- poverty rates in the United States have held steady for nearly 50 years and have rarely gone above 15 percent.
Important factors affecting poverty are educational attainment, economic opportunity, and family status. There is a strong and direct relationship between educational attainment and earnings and employability. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2015 an adult (aged 25+) with a bachelor’s degree earned about 60 percent more than an adult with just a high school diploma and was only about half as likely to be unemployed. However, a good education is not enough. To reach their full earning potential, workers also need the job opportunities and potential for upward mobility a healthy economy creates.
There is also a greater likelihood of facing poverty or near poverty if one is Black or Hispanic or in a family (of any race) that is headed by a single woman.
What is the State's Role?
Traditionally, the primary role of government in addressing poverty has been to provide a social safety net that mitigates its impact. Since the mid-1990s, however, welfare reform efforts at the state and federal levels have changed the focus of these programs to "welfare to work," where those in need are provided temporary assistance (with lifetime limits) and access to resources to help them become self-supporting. This is accomplished through programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), expanded tax credits, and various workforce initiatives.
In addition to these practical efforts, the state can help reduce long-term poverty rates by enhancing general education and providing a good climate for business and employment growth -- two of the key factors that affect long-term poverty rates.
However, overall poverty levels have proven to be quite stubborn, despite periods of significant economic growth during the last 50 years. This lack of progress in the face of generally rising living conditions is largely attributable to stagnant growth in median wages and to increasing wage / income inequality.
For example, one 2005 study shows that increasing the median wage by 10 percent decreases the poverty rate by about 2 percentage points. Currently, an individual working a full-time job at minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) earns just $13,920 a year before taxes and other deductions -- barely above the 2014 federal poverty level of $12,071.
Data Definitions and Sources
State and U.S. (2005-2014)
U.S Census Bureau, American Communities Survey
Localities, State, and US
U.S. Census Bureau, Small Area Income & Poverty Estimates
Education level and income comparisons: Bureau of Labor and Statistics
The American Community Survey is used here to estimate poverty rates from 2005 onward. Previous years used the Annual Social and Economic Supplements of the Current Population Survey.
See the Data Sources and Updates Calendar for a detailed list of the data resources used for indicator measures on Virginia Performs.