Harrisonburg Cited as Virginia’s Poorest Locality

December 12, 2013

By Jeannette Porter

The poorest locality in Virginia in 2012 was the city of Harrisonburg, according to an analysis of data released Dec. 12 by the U.S. Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates program.

Almost four in 10 Harrisonburg residents (37.5 percent) fell below the poverty line, according to the SAIPE data. The estimates are based on information from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey combined with aggregate data from federal tax information, administrative records on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) participation, 2000 and 2010 Census statistics, and annual population estimates.

The city of Radford came in second, with 34.2 percent of its population below the poverty line. Lee County was third, with a poverty rate of 28.4 percent.

Lunenburg County (27.3 percent) and Martinsville (27.2 percent) rounded out the top five poorest areas. The cities of Richmond, Danville and Petersburg, which are frequent contenders for dubious economic honors, came in at sixth, seventh and eighth respectively. Wise County and the city of Emporia were ninth and 10th, sharing a poverty rate of 25.6 percent.

Overall, a bit more than one in ten Virginians (11.8 percent) lived below the poverty line in 2012. The national rate was 15.9 percent.

One quirk in the overall poverty rates, though, is that they appear to count college students as poor; most students, after all, have low incomes. That may be why college towns such as Harrisonburg and Radford have the highest overall poverty rates in Virginia.

A different pattern emerges when one looks at the poverty rates only for residents under 18. The localities with the highest childhood poverty in Virginia are Danville (40.6 percent), Martinsville (39.2 percent), Petersburg (38.2 percent), Lee County (37.2 percent) and Richmond (36.5 percent).

Youth poverty was a significant national, state and local issue. Of the 10 poorest cities and counties in Virginia, the bottom eight had greater poverty rates under the age of 18 than in their populations overall. This was true for the commonwealth overall, where the percentage of poverty among residents under 18 (15.5 percent) was four percentage points higher than the poverty rate for all ages.

The same pattern held true nationally; 22.6 percent of Americans under 18 live under the poverty line, compared with just 15.9 percent of all ages together.

This article is a “Data Drop brief” — a quick-hit posting based on analysis by students in MASC 644 Computer-Assisted Reporting. This was an exercise with just-released data that students did for the final exam.