The Challenge to Create a Healthier—and More Equitable—Northern Virginia
Share This
Foundation News

The Challenge to Create a Healthier—and More Equitable—Northern Virginia

By: Northern Virginia Health Foundation
By Patricia N. Mathews, President, Northern Virginia Health FoundationImagine two boys born the same day, in neighborhoods virtually next door to each other.In one of those neighborhoods, the average household is almost $200,000 a year. Three-quarters of adult residents hold a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Most of them own their own homes; they drive nice cars and send their kids to good schools.But just a short distance away, in the other neighborhood, one-third of children live in poverty.  Only 14 percent of adults have completed college.  More than half the population lacks health insurance.  Few people own homes, and 30 percent of renters spend more than half their income on housing.Now compare the likely opportunities each boy has to live a healthy, prosperous life.  The difference is troubling.Those two neighborhoods exist, right here, in Northern Virginia.  Lake Barcroft is an affluent community in Fairfax County, but, only a few blocks away, the largely Hispanic and highly disadvantaged Culmore area near Bailey’s Crossroads might as well be in a different world.

Islands of Disadvantage in a Sea of Affluence

Culmore is one of 15 “islands of disadvantage” in our region where people struggle to get ahead, even as their neighbors enjoy a much higher quality of life, with access to far more resources and opportunities, according to a new report.The report, produced for the Northern Virginia Health Foundation (NVHF) by the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), reveals stark social and economic disparities, sometimes between neighborhoods separated by only a few blocks. It was also the focus of a Nov. 28 summit that brought together policymakers and community leaders from across the region to explore how best to address these inequities and ensure that all Northern Virginians have an opportunity to thrive.There’s a tendency to think of Northern Virginia as a place with abundant resources and few problems.  And it’s true that, overall, the opportunity landscape for the region is strong.  But, as Steven Woolf, M.D., report author and director of VCU’s Center on Society and Health, points out, the overall picture obscures what’s happening beneath the surface.When you look at census-tract data, as VCU did, you see a much different picture: clusters of poverty where people struggle against crushing housing costs, low levels of education, inadequate public transportation, and few opportunities for advancement. People of color are disproportionately located in disadvantaged communities, and, as a result, face greater challenges.Among the report’s findings at the neighborhood level:
  • Preschool: In 44 census tracts across the region, 99% of children ages 3 to 4 attended preschool, but in 15 tracts, fewer than 0.1% of preschool-age children were enrolled.

  • Income: Median household income for the region was approximately $122,000 per year, yet 12 census tracts had median household incomes below $50,000 per year.

  • Housing: Housing problems—defined as incomplete plumbing or kitchen facilities, overcrowding, or cost burdens exceeding 30% of annual household income—were reported across the region. In 44 tracts, more than two-thirds of renters reported such problems.

  • Health care: In 45 census tracts, more than 25% of the population had no health insurance.

When these kinds of challenges define your everyday life, your opportunities for achieving your full potential and leading a healthy life are limited.

Working Together to Expand Opportunity

So how do we solve this problem?I don’t have the answer to that question, but I do know that we must all work together—and when I say “all,” I really do mean everyone, whether you’re in health care, business, economic development, education, social services, public transportation, housing, urban planning … you name it.Not only that, we must work differently. We must think differently, outside the comfort zones of the silos we’re used to working in. If our goal is to improve opportunity and quality of life in our community, we need to look at our community as a whole, and not just as a community with health needs or education needs.The reality is that health does not exist in a vacuum and neither does education. The same holds true for employment, housing, and myriad other social and economic factors of everyday life that interact with each other and shape people’s well-being.What’s most encouraging to me is that the solutions for improving health and well-being in our region are the same solutions that will grow businesses and local economies. It’s a win-win. And it’s why we need to work together.At the November 28 summit, attendees brainstormed and offered up their “big ideas” for addressing disparities in Northern Virginia. They ranged from engaging more intentionally with the development sector to creating benchmark models based on the strengths and assets of struggling neighborhoods and sharing those models with leaders in other communities.I was pleased to hear people say that they are beginning to use census tract data in their everyday work.  They don’t want to wait for more research; they want to coordinate their efforts and concentrate on strategies that will produce the biggest impacts for the region.There is no single, overnight solution.  But I believe that, working together, we will find ways to create opportunities for everyone in our region to thrive.  Northern Virginia should not be a place where your ability to reach your potential depends on which side of the street you live on.

Explore our interactive, census tract-level maps that show how opportunity varies in Northern Virginia.