Poverty in Richmond highest in the state

November 9, 2013

By Ireti Adesanya

A lot of people think of Detroit as the poster child for poverty. But here’s a disturbing fact: The poverty rate in Richmond is just as bad.

Virginia’s capital city continued to have the highest poverty rate in the state, with one in four residents living at or below the poverty line, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The numbers came from the 2012 American Community Survey, released in September. The survey estimated that more than 52,000 of Richmond’s approximately 200,000 residents were living in poverty last year.

At just over 26 percent, Richmond’s poverty rate was about the same as that of Wayne County (Detroit), Michigan.

The ACS provided data on all U.S. counties with at least a 60,000 population. (The Census Bureau categorizes Virginia’s independent cities as counties, and so Richmond was included in the survey).

Among the 814 localities included in the survey, Richmond ranked 31st for the highest poverty rate in the United States in 2012. Richmond’s rate was 26.3 percent; next came Wayne County, at 26.2 percent. (However, the Census Bureau notes that the estimates are subject to a margin of error, and small differences are not significant.)

This comes as no surprise. Since 2010, the ACS, which analyzes the economic and social conditions of American households, has reported that a quarter of Richmond residents were living below the poverty threshold. By comparison, the 2012 poverty rate was about 21 percent in Norfolk, 19 percent in Portsmouth and 16 percent in Newport News. Statewide, an estimated 11.7 percent of all Virginians were living in poverty last year.

In 2011, Mayor Dwight C. Jones created the Anti-Poverty Commission to find solutions that would strengthen communities, increase employment and improve transportation. It was also tasked with understanding the historical roots of poverty in Richmond.

The Mayor’s Anti-Poverty Commission released its report in January. It said the historical concentration of poverty in East End and Southside Richmond was an important catalyst for pervasive poverty in Richmond today.

Government policies helped cause that concentration. During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt created the Federal Homeowners Loan Corporation. The agency provided loans to neighborhoods to refinance homes nearing foreclosure. But banks and real estate appraisers denied loans to all black neighborhoods.

This laid the foundation for the mass migration of African American families to the East End, according to John Moeser, a member of the Anti-Poverty Commission.

“It’s a tragic chapter in Richmond’s history. You had segregation, and then you had the redlining. Every single black neighborhood, irrespective of income, was redlined,” said Moeser, a senior fellow at the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond and a professor emeritus of urban studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“These areas that had been redlined became the areas where – if you were going to build something, and you needed to clear land to build it – that’s where you would go.”

That is exactly what happened. Black neighborhoods were carved up by the creation and expansion of Interstates 95 and 64, the redevelopment of downtown Richmond, the westward expansion of the Medical College of Virginia and the creation of the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park.

More than 10 percent of Jackson Ward, Fulton Hill and Navy Hill residents were displaced.

“As these redevelopment projects occurred, poor blacks were constantly forced into public housing [in the East End]. When you look at the consequences of that … you have Jackson Ward split in two. You have another very strong neighborhood called Navy Hill that was completely destroyed,” Moeser said.

The effects are still reverberating throughout the city. The commission’s report stated that half of Richmond’s poor live in neighborhoods where 50 percent of residents live in extreme poverty. While poverty is a citywide issue, it is mainly concentrated in the East End and Southside of Richmond.

Poverty in Richmond is exacerbated by unemployment, poor education, inadequate job-skill training and limited transportation. The commission issued five major policy recommendations for the city to implement:

  1. Invest in the workforce by improving job-skill training (teach skills that reflect the needs of the employer).
  2. Work with students in the Richmond Public School system to better prepare them for college or the workforce.
  3. Recruit major employers to city and increase partnerships between businesses and universities.
  4. Create a rapid transit system of buses that connect residents to jobs outside of the city.
  5. Redevelop neighborhoods without displacing residents.

Jay Speer, a consumer law attorney at the Virginia Poverty Law Center, believes Richmond is headed in the right direction for easing poverty. But he says any jobs created should pay above the minimum wage.

“Jobs are an important part of getting people out of poverty,” Speer said. But he added, “They need to have the kinds of jobs that pay decent wages. A lot of the poor work, but the wages are so low that it’s a constant struggle. You can’t seem to get your head above the water.”

Perhaps the most controversial recommendation is the creation of a bus rapid transit system. This would require extending bus routes into Chesterfield and Henrico counties. Because of politics, Speer does not this happening anytime soon.

“I’m not sure that I see that happening, but that really is a key measure. People forget how difficult it is to get around for somebody who’s low-income. Cars are expensive. They’re always breaking down, and gas is expensive,” Speer said.

While most of the recommendations will take time, there is a consensus that Richmond is making progress.

The Census Bureau’s figures suggest as much: Richmond’s poverty rate has leveled off (25.8 percent in 2010, 26.9 percent in 2011, and 26.3 percent last year). In contrast, Norfolk’s rate jumped from about 16 percent in 2010 to more than 21 percent in 2012, and Hampton’s rate rose from less than 12 percent to more than 17 percent.

John Accordino, a professor of urban and regional planning program at VCU, says he is cautious but optimistic that Richmond will be able to succeed.

“I am very optimistic about its prospects for success,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that I think that each of its initiatives will succeed or that they’ll succeed right away. These are deep-seated problems with multiple causes, so solving them will take time, perseverance and flexibility. But Richmond is on the right track.”

Here are the data used in this report. Because the data file exceeded the number of cells allowed for a single Google Spreadsheet, the data has been uploaded to three spreadsheets. They show:

Also, here is a  Web page showing the poverty rates of the largest counties in Virginia.


Check out this article discussing the biggest bumps in poverty rates across the U.S. from 2010 to 2012.