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2017-04-19 / Front Page

Committee outlines plan to combat poverty

BY JIM McCONNELL STAFF WRITER

Chesterfield’s Committee on the Future has issued a series of recommendations about how local leaders can combat increasing poverty and make the county “a community of opportunity” over the next three decades.

Wendy Austin, the committee’s chairwoman, has sought community feedback on the draft report this month at meetings across the county. The last of those meetings will take place April 25 at 7 p.m. in the conference room at the Midlothian Library.

“The challenge we see is while the county’s economy is strong overall, trends indicate that for many citizens, financial security is decreasing,” Austin said during a community meeting at the Bensley Community Center.

She noted that Chesterfield’s rates of post-secondary education (67 percent) and labor force participation (69.3 percent) both surpass regional, state and national averages. So does the county’s median income ($72,609).

Adjusting for inflation, though, median income has decreased 13 percent since 2000. According to U.S. Census data, the number of county residents living in poverty has grown by 107 percent over the same period. The federal poverty threshold is $20,320 for a single parent with two children. Many of those citizens live along an economically depressed northern stretch of the Jefferson Davis Highway corridor, which has the highest rates of poverty and unemployment in the county.

However, the Virginia Department of Social Services’ standard for financial self-sufficiency – defined as the annual income needed for a single parent and two children to live in Chesterfield with no public assistance – is $71,185, more than three times higher than the federal poverty threshold.

That means there are many families who aren’t considered to be living in poverty, Austin said, but nonetheless are struggling to pay for shelter, food and other basic necessities.

According to the committee’s research, a county resident earning minimum wage ($7.25 per hour) would have to work 89 hours per week to afford the rent of an average one-bedroom housing unit in Chesterfield. “We have to remember there’s a wide continuum between poverty and thriving,” she added.

The Board of Supervisors hopes to address that gap by increasing the county’s commercial base and creating opportunities for citizens to land higher-paying jobs without having to go to Henrico or Richmond.

That’s just one element of the “proactive, targeted” response recommended in the committee’s draft report.

It calls for creating comparable access to job opportunities through improvements in the county’s transportation network, particularly for citizens who don’t own or have access to vehicles.

Another objective is to increase neighborhood stability and housing opportunities for people with a wide range of incomes across the county.

It also is moving forward with creation of the new Community Enhancement Department, which County Administrator Joe Casey has said will more closely coordinate existing efforts of staff and local nonprofit groups.

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Dorothy Jaeckle, whose district includes the Jefferson Davis corridor, says the coordination is key to ensuring local government isn’t working in a vacuum and “reinventing the wheel.”

“The question is, How do we make connections and help people work together who have the same goals?” she said.

Ignoring the problems related to poverty is not an option, Austin said. If the county adds 100,000 new residents in the next 20 to 30 years who are impoverished at the national average (15 percent), Chesterfield will have nearly 40,000 residents living below the poverty line.

“That is the core of our message – that if we don’t do anything, it will not only affect individuals but the entire county. We will suffer from suburban decline that we see happening in different communities across the country,” she added.

“Acceptance is part of the solution. I think we’ve made great strides with our government folks. They are seeing the reality of it.” ¦

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