Despite being among the most prosperous jurisdictions in the nation, Fairfax County’s economic growth is being hindered because of inequities in income, employment, education and opportunity, which are making it harder for low-income residents and people of color to achieve success, according to a recent analysis by PolicyLink and the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE).
Income disparities based on race alone cost Fairfax County an estimated $26.2 billion in projected Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2012, says the new report, “Equitable Growth Profile of Fairfax County.” In 2012, the county’s GDP was $109.6 billion. Report authors say that if racial gaps in income were eliminated, the county’s GDP would have reached $135.8 billion that year.
The findings come as Fairfax County begins to recognize a huge demographic shift among its more than one million residents. According to the report, people of color will comprise more than half the county’s population by 2020; that number will grow to two-thirds by 2030. The authors say that while Fairfax County is already taking some steps to address economic disparities, opportunity gaps based on race and income will continue to hinder economic growth in Fairfax County unless leaders do more.
Improving access to education is one example. According to the report, a growing number of youth of color lack access to education they need to get good jobs. In addition, Latinos, Blacks, and people of mixed races have higher unemployment rates than Whites—even when they have comparable education levels—and they earn less, the authors add. On a positive note, Blacks, Latinos, and Asian/Pacific Islanders are earning more than in the past and making their way into the middle-class. But as with much of the country, the proportion of middle-class households are shrinking and a strong middle class is key to a strong economy, the authors say.
Where you live in Fairfax County also matters. According to the report, residents in southeastern parts of the county—inhabited mostly by people of color—are more likely to be low-income and rent-burdened (with 30 percent or more of income going to rent), which makes it harder to save and build assets. Residents of southeastern Fairfax County also fare the worst in terms of health outcomes and those factors that contribute to overall health known as social determinants of health—such as access to good housing, transportation, healthy food, and safe places to play.
“If we don’t focus our attention on educating young people of color and making sure they are healthy, how will they thrive? How will they become the next wave of IT workers, public school teachers, and pharmacists? And where will we be without that strong workforce?” said Patricia Mathews, President and CEO of the Northern Virginia Health Foundation (NVHF), which is partnering with a number of Fairfax County stakeholders to help bring attention to the report.
The report authors also point to a number of policies and programs already at work in Fairfax County that have the potential to help all residents thrive, such as the work of the Northern Virginia Workforce Investment Board, which offers employment services and training in six employment centers.
But the authors also call for several additional strategies for further expanding economic opportunities for all of the residents of Fairfax County, which they say is key to the county’s future economic success. These include boosting training programs for people with low education levels; investing in community infrastructure (e.g., roads, transit, and sewers) in ways that create jobs, particularly in low-income areas; and expanding strategies to help ensure that immigrant youth and other young people of color get the support they need to complete high school and enter college.
“Fairfax County is not alone—demographic shifts are taking place all across Northern Virginia,” said Ms. Mathews. “We hope this report spurs conversations and action across all sectors—from government officials and advocates to employers, city planners, nonprofits, and others. Making sure everyone has a chance at success is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do,” she added.