Poverty has increased dramatically in RVA suburbs

As poverty increases, affordable housing, access to public transportation, and linkages between housing, transportation, and job centers become more important for RVA region.

The recent New York Times story about suburban poverty is getting a lot of attention.  The story notes the shifting growth of poverty from the urban core of New York to its suburban peripheries, but it’s based around Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, a book released today by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube at the Brookings Institution.  Admittedly, I haven’t read the book yet (yet!), but this trend came up in some data I was looking at recently.  In Virginia, Richmond and its immediate counties – Chesterfield and Henrico – are good examples of this trend in action.

The shift of poverty growth from the city to the suburbs is a trend we can see pretty clearly in the numbers.  A look at data comparing poverty in the City of Richmond and the counties of Chesterfield and Henrico, shows trends that aren’t far off from those outlined in the Times article.

The City of Richmond gets attention throughout the region for its poverty rate, which was 26.4 according to 2011 estimates.  The city’s mayor, Dwight Jones, made the development of an antipoverty strategy one of the first priorities of his second term.  But the bulk of the region’s poverty growth – numbers of people rather than rates – is happening in the suburbs.

From 1989 to 2011, which is as far back as the Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates go, the City of Richmond’s population in poverty has grown by about 14%, or about 6,200 people.  In terms of poverty rate, that’s a 3.4 point increase, from 23.0 to 26.4.  In the same time period, Henrico has seen its population below poverty grow by 163% (20,500 individuals), and Chesterfield by 181% (14,500 individuals).

Suburban poverty rates remain lower the city’s 26.4, but poverty growth in the counties has outpaced total population growth.  Point increases in the poverty rate of a suburban county – where the total population has been growing rapidly for decades – represent more people than point increases in the rate of the city – where the total population only recently reversed its shrinking numbers.  Henrico’s poverty rate increased 5.0 points between 1989 and 2011 (5.8 to 10.8).  Chesterfield’s increased 3.4 points (3.8 to 7.2).  As noted above, Richmond also had a 3.4 point increase over those 22 years.  But Chesterfield’s 3.4 point increase represents 14,500 individuals, more than double Richmond’s 3.4 point increase of 6,200 individuals.

The chart below shows pretty clearly just how significant those changes have been:


The growth of poverty in jurisdictions throughout the region is cause for concern, and the trend of more rapid suburban growth is important.  As the suburban population of individuals below poverty increases, Richmond’s share of the region’s poverty drops.  In 1989, the city’s share of poverty among the three jurisdictions was 68.5%.  Today, it’s 47.9% (see the chart below).  There are more people in poverty in the immediate suburbs of Richmond than there are in the city.

The shifting geography of poverty away from the region’s urban core has important implications for policy decisions at the local and regional levels.  While there is still need for the antipoverty resources and strategies traditionally concentrated in the city, the counties are facing a growing problem.  The more widely distributed suburban residential patterns may make addressing those needs more costly.


Urban poverty in the Richmond region isn’t shrinking, but that’s not for lack of attention or effort.  Suburban poverty in Richmond has surpassed urban poverty in total numbers, presenting new challenges to the counties.  As the population of suburban poor continues to expand, antipoverty resources and infrastructure – affordable housing, access to public transportation, and linkages between housing, transportation, and job centers – will only increase in importance across the region.


This is a guest post by Mike MacKenzie. Mike is a Housing Research Analyst at HOME. He joined the staff in January 2013 after spending 2012 helping HOME study how local governments identify and address fair housing needs.  The former journalist and radio producer is passionate about sharing information and analysis that promotes transparency, informed decision-making, and accountability.  Mike specializes in fair housing planning, the spatial impacts of local policy decisions, and the federal regulations that guide local and state governments.  He received his Master of Urban and Regional Planning at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2011.


One thought on “Poverty has increased dramatically in RVA suburbs

  1. Ali, good to see we both picked this up immediately when we saw it. I just read the Atlantic Cities article on this report, but this detailed analysis of the Richmond region is really effective and helpful. I will include this in VHC’s next newsletter.

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