Some areas in Northern Virginia still experience major economic hardships despite the region’s overall wealth, a new report from the Northern Virginia Health Foundation (NVHF) and the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Center on Society and Health says.

Released publicly on Nov. 28, “Getting Ahead: The Uneven Opportunity Landscape in Northern Virginia” found that the same factors, such as education, housing, and transportation, that influence people’s health also have a significant impact on their social and economic mobility.

The study identified 15 “islands of disadvantage” in Northern Virginia with residents who struggle with challenges such as poverty, poor or limited education, and a lack of affordable housing and health insurance.

These communities tend to have disproportionately black and Hispanic populations and often exist side-by-side with much wealthier neighborhoods that are generally composed of large white or Asian populations.

“We are talking about an area that’s generally known for being affluent and having a lot of advantages,” VCU Center on Society and Health director Steven Woolf said. “Although that’s true as a general statement, when you zoom in and look at particular parts of town, you find that there are pockets of extreme disadvantage that exist in the middle of all this affluence.”

The NVHF, which provides grants to nonprofits that address healthcare needs, commissioned the Center on Society and Health to conduct this study as a follow-up to an earlier one that had examined life expectancies in Northern Virginia.

That report, titled “Mapping Life Expectancy in Northern Virginia” and released in June 2016, found that life expectancy at birth varies by as many as 13 years across the region, with race, education, income, and neighborhood conditions emerging as key factors.

With its new study, the NVHF hoped to get a closer look at these issues.

VCU researchers examined population data for census tracts – a geographic area smaller than zip codes that is roughly equivalent to a neighborhood – in Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties, as well as all towns and cities within that footprint, according to Woolf.

“Getting Ahead” found that life expectancies at the census tract level in Northern Virginia can vary by as much as 18 years due to differences in socioeconomic opportunities and neighborhood environmental conditions.

In Fairfax County alone, life expectancy varies by as much as 11 years, ranging from 78 years in parts of Centreville, Annandale, and the Route 1 corridor to 89 years in Reston Town Center and Tyson’s Corner.

While the overall unemployment rate for Northern Virginia is 4 percent, that rate is above 10 percent in 18 out of the region’s 513 census tracts.

Similarly, 12 tracts had median household incomes below $50,000 per year, compared to $122,000 for the region as a whole, and one-third or more of children live in poverty in 26 census tracts.

Fairfax County boasts a median household income of $110,292 countywide, but a closer look reveals census tracts, like one section north of Poplar Tree Road in Chantilly, where the median household income is $70,000 and poverty rates exceed 20 percent.

Education for residents in the islands of disadvantage is limited, as fewer than 75 percent of the population in 18 tracts completed high school. On average, 92 percent of Northern Virginian adults have a high school degree.

In addition, more than 25 percent of the residents in 45 census tracts, accounting for more than 240,000 people, do not have health insurance.

People of color are disproportionately affected by these challenges, as they are heavily concentrated in disadvantaged areas, such as the Herndon and Route 1 neighborhoods of Fairfax County or Southern Towers in Alexandria, where 72 percent of the population is black.

The disparity between conditions at Bailey’s Crossroads, particularly the Culmore area, and the nearby Lake Barcroft neighborhood is one of the most drastic in the region, according to Woolf.

With a population that is 76 percent Hispanic and 61 percent foreign-born, Bailey’s Crossroads was the most disadvantaged census tract in the region with a 21 percent poverty rate, including one-third of the child population, and a median household income of $47,214.

Only 14 percent of adults living in Bailey’s Crossroads have completed college, and more than half of its residents lacking health insurance.

The median rent in Bailey’s Crossroads, where few residents own homes, is $1,374 per month, and 30 percent of renters spend more than half their incomes on rent.

By contrast, just down the street, Lake Barcroft has a 2 percent unemployment rate and a 3 percent poverty rate, with less than 0.1 percent of children living in poverty. The neighborhood’s median household income is $192,750.

More than three-quarters of adults in Lake Barcroft hold a bachelor’s degree or a higher level of education, and 97 percent of the population has health insurance.

76 percent of the population at Lake Barcroft is white, with Hispanic and black people making up only 8 percent and 5 percent, respectively, of the overall populace.

When looking at these disparities, it is crucial to not blame socioeconomic challenges on the people who live in a particular neighborhood, Woolf says.

“There’s a tendency for many people to look at a bad part of town and say well, that’s the way those people live,” Woolf said. “The reality is those conditions came about because of decisions that government, society, voters, and taxpayers made years ago to create neighborhoods like that.”

On the bright side, if these conditions were created by policies, then they can presumably also be rectified through policy.

According to “Getting Ahead,” Northern Virginia leaders must address basic needs like food, housing, and healthcare in disadvantaged areas by improving their populations’ access to fresh, affordable, and nutritious food, affordable housing with functioning services and located in safe neighborhoods, and expanding access to both health insurance and health professionals and facilities.

However, the report says that addressing basic needs is not enough to resolve the root causes of poverty, since education and employment are crucial for creating economic mobility.

The study recommends that the region broaden access to preschool education and improve the quality of schools in disadvantaged areas by redistributing funding and resources often allocated to neighborhoods that have high property values and generate more tax revenue.

“Fairfax County, where I live, spends a lot of money to have the best football turf fields for kids in high school and so forth,” Woolf said. “High schools in these disadvantaged areas struggle to do the basics for their students, so more rational investment that made more of a priority of helping these communities would be important.”

Northern Virginia policymakers could push policies that make college and vocational schools more affordable. The addition of new businesses with jobs that pay a living wage to locate in disadvantaged areas and creation of training programs to give workers the skills to compete for those jobs would also be beneficial.

The NVHF report also says that regional leaders need to invest in disadvantaged communities by promoting clean environments, building needed infrastructure, making transportation accessible, and enhancing public safety through community policing, criminal justice reform, and youth programs and activities.

Making smart, socially responsible policies and investments could not only alleviate poverty and improve the livelihoods of populations that continue to experience economic challenges, but it would also make people healthier.

Woolf says that, while ensuring that people have insurance and access to quality healthcare is important, healthcare only actually affects about 10 to 20 percent of people’s health outcomes.

“The real answer to solving health problems are in non-health policies,” Woolf said. “The answers lie in education and job training, in housing and transportation infrastructure, getting Metro stops that are accessible and fares that are affordable, and a variety of other policy decisions that are more likely to improve their health than anything a doctor or hospital can do.”

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