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New measurement offers fresh look at poverty in the commonwealth

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A new measurement of poverty in Virginia is challenging conventional views of economic distress in areas such as Northern Virginia and Southwest Virginia

The University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service unveiled the Virginia Poverty Measure on Wednesday as part of an effort to more accurately reflect the economic conditions of the commonwealth.

Using the new measure, the Cooper Center found that, despite the region’s high median income, 12 percent of Northern Virginia residents are in economic distress, on par with a new state poverty rate of 11.9 percent.

“Northern Virginia’s particularly high cost of housing and other goods is to blame,” lead researcher Dustin Cable said in a statement. “The new measure’s poverty rates for Virginia better conform to our commonsense understanding of the actual resources available to families, and the necessary costs they face. A one-size-fits-all poverty measure that ignores regional differences doesn’t make sense.”

On the other hand, the new measure also reports significantly lower poverty rates for Southwest Virginia, a region that is typically shown as having particularly high poverty rates.

“Although Southwest Virginia still has the highest poverty rate in the state under the new measure [16 percent], it looks much more like its neighbors to the east,” Cable said. “The region is no longer an outlier in terms of economic deprivation. Accounting for a broader array of anti-poverty programs under the new measure helps lower rates in this region, as well as in Southside, the Northern Neck, the Valley and the Piedmont sections of Virginia.”

Among other findings from the new measure is a significantly lower poverty rate for children. Cable points out that the new poverty measure accounts for a broader array of anti-poverty programs and tax credits that are preferential toward families with young children, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and food stamps. By including these programs in the calculations of family resources, fewer families with children are found to be poor. On the other hand, by including the costs of medical out-of-pocket expenses, more seniors are found to be in poverty.

The Cooper Center says the Virginia Poverty incorporates contemporary spending patterns; accounts for regional differences in the cost of living; and includes in family resources the effects of taxes, government programs and medical expenses.

“Through the creation of the Virginia Poverty Measure, the commonwealth joins a handful of states taking steps to dramatically improve the way the nation has measured poverty for more than 50 years,” said Qian Cai, director of the Cooper Center’s Demographics & Workforce Group. “The methodology developed in Virginia extends the work done earlier in other states, has the potential to be a national model and can be applied by U.Va. researchers to other states using state-specific data and conditions to understand poverty among their citizens.”


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