Progress seen in economic check
Some debate whether poverty in region is actually down, however
There’s a mother of five living in North Richmond who works two jobs to support her family while she waits for her husband to come home from jail. She serves people food during the day and cares for them at night as a certified nursing assistant, a job that requires her to walk alone well after the sun sets to a job beyond the bus line in the West End.
She’s on the right side of the federal poverty line now, set at about $24,600 for a family of four, but she’s behind on her rent, past-due on her water bill, and worries constantly about the son who has threatened to end his life.
Hers is one of the stories behind the numbers reflected in this year’s temperature check of wide-ranging social and economic issues analyzed in the United Way of Greater Richmond and Petersburg’s Indicators of Community Strength report.
The study shows that fewer people are homeless, more are employed — and, by one count — fewer live in poverty than in recent years, but the numbers of those surviving and not thriving continue to climb.
“This report is helpful and gives us a baseline for understanding the magnitude of the challenges, but we have so much work to do as a community to understand what people are going through,” said Reggie Gordon, director of
the city of Richmond’s Office of Community Wealth Building.
The report set to be released Tuesday shows mixed results across many social and economic issues affecting more than 1.1 million inhabitants of an urban core and far-flung counties.
Among the metrics: Nearly 300,000 people are making less than 200 percent of the poverty threshold, which is widely accepted as a better barometer of economic stability than the federal poverty guidelines.
“If you’re driving a 20-yearold vehicle that has 175,000 miles on it to a low-wage job, it breaks down, and you can’t get to work, you need savings to bounce back from that,” said James Taylor, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Richmond and Petersburg. “A lot of people don’t have that, and they’re really struggling.”
About $700 stands between the woman scraping by in the city’s North Side and the roof over her children’s heads, Gordon said. Her situation is tenuous, and not uncommon.
“We may have more people employed, but we need people in jobs that pay a living wage,” Gordon said. “We haven’t seen a significant change in the (poverty numbers).”
The United Way found that about 9,100 fewer people in the region lived below the federal poverty threshold in 2015 than in 2013, a number based on U.S. census data that conflict with other local analyses of poverty trends that drew from a different set of census data.
“The big surprise this year was around that number,” Taylor said. “We’ve got to continue to work together as a region so we can find a way to move people forward.”
Taylor said the Indicators of Community Strength study is foundational to the nearly century-old agency’s mission and helps inform annual investments of between $7 million to $8 million in efforts to improve the quality of life across its coverage area.
The analysis considers everything from teen pregnancy rates (down) to the number of residents with health insurance (up) and how many of the region’s inhabitants have the savings needed to weather three months without income without plunging below the federal poverty line.
The retired director of the University of Richmond’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, John Moeser — who this spring issued a study of poverty across Richmond and the surrounding counties — said the big-picture results of the United Way’s poverty analysis were not reflective of what his team found in the city of Richmond and Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico counties.
“I’m wary (of drawing a conclusion that poverty is down),” Moeser said. “If you look at any of the jurisdictions in our immediate area, poverty is going up.”
The United Way’s 2016 report detailed faster growth in the population living below the poverty line across Richmond’s suburban counties than in the city, Petersburg and Colonial Heights.
The agency then and now made use of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates, whereas Moeser and his team of researchers analyzed the bureau’s American Community Survey data, which the federal agency notes is better suited to the type of demographic deep dive Moeser conducted.
A United Way spokesman said the data set used in the report is better suited to analyzing the small populations typical of many localities it serves, and includes elements of the data Moeser and his team used in their report.
The decline in poverty identified in the report is slight and falls within the Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates’ margin of error, he said.
“Regionally, we have seen a decline in the percent of people in poverty. However, some localities, such as the city of Richmond, have not seen a significant decline in this area,” Taylor said.
“We also know that the number of people living below 200 percent of poverty has increased in multiple areas across the region. What this tells us is that while we have seen some progress, there is still a lot of work to do.”
For its part, the United Way hopes to continue building on a framework for boosting outcomes that begins with pregnancy, ends with connected and healthy older adults, and rests on a foundation of essentials such as food, safety and housing.
Progress has been made in decreasing the area’s homeless population, the report notes. A federally mandated point-intime count in January found 662 homeless people, down 156 from 2015.
The numbers represent those temporarily housed in shelters and people without a roof over their heads across a service area that almost lines up with the United Way’s region, said Margot Ackermann, research and evaluation director at Homeward.
“We are collectively doing a better job,” Ackermann said of the various government and nonprofit agencies working together to move people out of homelessness and prevent them from experiencing it in the first place.
Ackermann said agencies have made progress in part by working to keep people in jeopardy of losing their housing stable, and by moving people in shelters out and into housing more quickly, with supports.
“We are seeing some really positive things happening,” Taylor said. “Progress is attainable; I think people get discouraged when we talk about health and human services issues.”
The study shows that the rate of teen pregnancy, which is in decline nationwide, also continued to tick down across the region, from 5.9 births per 1,000 in 2013 to 4.5 per 1,000 in 2015.
That finding makes progress in the areas that follow — early childhood education, kindergarten readiness, and educational attainment — more possible, Taylor said.
The United Way of Greater Richmond and Petersburg’s catchment area includes Charles City, Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, Goochland, Hanover, Henrico, New Kent and Powhatan counties and the cities of Colonial Heights, Petersburg and Richmond.