If You’ve Gotta Be Poor, You’re Better Off in Virginia (but Best off in Utah)

One would expect Virginia children to be better off than children in other states if only for the reasons that our household incomes are higher than the national average and Virginia has a smaller percentage of poor children. But what happens when you focus on just the poor? How well off are Virginia’s poor children compared to their peers in other states?

Given the chintziness of Virginia’s social welfare programs, one might expect that poor kids in the Old Dominion get a raw deal. But that’s not so, as it turns out.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation has studied the issue, compiling a wide variety of indicators of well being. Virginia’s composite score is 18th in the country — 4th best in the country east of the Mississippi River. (Believe it or not, West Virginia edges us out!)

Here’s how Virginia fared in the category scores (the lower the score, the better):

Health status — 10
Social and emotional well being — 19
Cognitive development and educational attainment — 10
Family activities — 41
Family and neighborhood context — 26
Social and economic context — 26

What I find interesting is that Northeastern states known for the generosity of their social services fare the worst in the country. Poor children in Massachusetts rank 50, Rhode Island 49, New York 48, and New Jersey 47. And who’s at the top? Utah, not exactly a bastion of the welfare state, ranks No. 1. Other top performers are the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states — all part of “red state” flyover country.

Maybe the Annie E. Casey folks can do a follow-up study next year and examine the apparent reverse correlation between government social spending and child welfare.

(Image credit: Annie E. Casey Foundation. Click on image for a larger, more legible graphic.)

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7 responses to “If You’ve Gotta Be Poor, You’re Better Off in Virginia (but Best off in Utah)”

  1. Jim Bacon Avatar

    One more comment: No. 18 sounds pretty mediocre, but it understates the extent to which poor children in Virginia are better off than poor kids outside Virginia. Look at the states with the biggest populations — California, Texas, New York, Florida, New Jersey, Michigan and Ohio. The poor kids there are worse off. Then look at the states with the top scores — they’re among the least populous states in the country. Overall, we’re doing pretty well.

  2. Groveton Avatar

    I wonder about cost of living and the condition of the poor. In general, I think that high costs of living disproportionately hurt the poor. Of course, this becomes somewhat obvious if the same income levels are used to define poverty regardless of location. A family of four making $30,000 per year is a whole lot poorer in Fairfax than they would be in Wise County.

    I also wonder about the condition of poor children and the extent of the income gap in the state. Florida always seemed like a big “income gap” state. A lot of wealthy people and a lot of very poor people. I believe the lack of a large middle class is also relatively detrimental to poor people. This should be carefully considered as discussion of the “Creative Class” unfold. I see the “Creative Class” as being highly educated and a minority of the population. Meanwhile, the poor have generally lower education. It would seem difficult for a poor person with a relatively low educational level to “jump” directly into the “Creative Class”. There needs to be a middle class – no? And here’s the big question (in my mind) – some of the theories of new human settlement patterns seem to rely on an expanded Creative Class at the expense of a growing middle class. I think this will further polarize the haves from the have-nots. And this polarization, throughout all of history, has been a very, very bad idea.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    I think you might have the causation of social welfare with cost of living backward. It would seem to be that as Groveton said, high cost housing areas would hurt the poor worse. This would increase demands on the state for services for the poor from the citizenry. Basically you are looking at the gap between what a poorer person earns vs basic needs. In a high cost state that gap will increase even with slightly higher pay for low end work.

    In a lot of flyover country even poorer working class citizens can afford a cheap piece of land and put a trailer on it. Good luck doing that in urban VA, NYC, CA, Northeast, etc. Not saying it’s ideal, but definitely less of a struggle than working class in Nova or HR.

    Jim, I can’t see how you can be proud to be No. 18 when it comes to the poor. Guess it’s an ethical thing to me.


  4. Jim Bacon Avatar

    ZS, No, I’m not bragging about the condition of the poor in Virginia — a No. 18 ranking is hardly something to be proud about.

    My main point is that traditional welfare-state remedies for poverty — transferring wealth and creating a self-perpetuating culture of poverty — don’t result in much “well being” among the poor. If your ethical compass is the well being of the poor, you should be concerned about what actually ameliorates the condition of the poor.

    If I had the resources, I would ask myself, what is it about Utah that makes the lot of poor people so much better than in New York.

    Groveton, you make an interesting observation about poverty and the income gap. The states where the well being of the poor is lowest, I would hypothesize, also tend to have the highest income gaps — New York, Massachusetts, etc. The states where the well being of the poor is highest, I would suggest, tend to have smaller income gaps.

    The “liberal” political philosophy is most pervasive in states with high income gaps. Cause or effect? Do wealthy people observe the disparities, feel guilty and endorse welfare-state solutions. trapping people in a cycle of poverty? I don’t know. Just asking questions.

    As for your question about poverty and the regional cost of living. Good question. In a two-minute search of the Internet, I couldn’t find whether the Feds consider cost of living differentials in their definitions of poverty. I have to run off and make breakfast for the Little Guy!.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    “If I had the resources, I would ask myself, what is it about Utah that makes the lot of poor people so much better than in New York.”

    Fairly simple, it’s significantly cheaper to live in UT than NY on average. Though the income gap between rich and poor is somewhat relevant a bigger driver is the gap between poor and median income. As was made in the example above the median of Fairfax is 90k while low end is more in the 30k range. Those 90k folks drive up the cost of housing in a limited supply housing market where land has significant value. Take the flyover areas where there aren’t constraints on housing, you would have the avg around 45k and the poor at 15k (half of both, just examples). In that case though the working poor have less money the cost of housing is 1/4 to 1/3 what the high cost area is and they offer lower end housing. This gives the poorer person an opportunity, though slight, to work their way out of poverty. In a high cost region that same person is actually behind and dependent on the state for housing, essentially a negative cash flow situation whereby the state covers the shortfall.

    “The “liberal” political philosophy is most pervasive in states with high income gaps. Cause or effect? Do wealthy people observe the disparities, feel guilty and endorse welfare-state solutions. trapping people in a cycle of poverty? I don’t know. Just asking questions.”

    I’m not so sure it’s the wealthy that feel guilty, it’s more the middle class in the high cost areas. It’s difficult to live in an area like NoVa and see a number of people working at lower end jobs and you realize they are commuting either ridiculous distances or living in rather bad situations. When I lived in the Midwest even though I knew the person working at 7-11 or Target didn’t make a lot I knew they could afford a trailer or have a small place on someone’s lot. I also knew if they were real frugal they could save up and get ahead even a little; in high cost regions they’re already behind the 8-ball and it’s real hard to catch up on one’s own.

    I think there is a flaw in the argument that liberal states tend to support the welfare state in practice as most the major programs are federally mandated (MediCaid, WIC, HUD, Food Stamps). This would tell me the usage of welfare in a state is not politically driven, but financially since all states offer the same programs, though I do believe there are cost differentials for area.

    I would agree with many economists that the cause of the cycle of poverty is usually a lack of discretionary income for the poor. This would be more pervasive in high cost areas as almost all money at that point goes towards housing and transportation.


  6. Jim Bacon Avatar

    ZS, I would agree that the regional Cost of Living is a significant factor in understanding regional variations in poverty. However, I don’t think that’s germane to the original post. In measuring “well being,” the Annie E. Casie Foundation was not measuring poverty itself. It was getting a handle on qualitative aspects of poverty on those already deemed to be poor.

    Thus, this particular rating is based on the following: Health status, social and emotional well being, cognitive development and educational attainment, family activities, family and neighborhood context, and social and economic context.

  7. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Next time you guys are in a WalMart, take a look at the faces of the folks working there – and ask yourself WERE they live and what their health status is .. their educational attainment, .. and neighborhood.

    Multiply this out.. in many communities to many of the jobs that are “service” grade in nature and salary.

    What is the answer?

    Are people who work hard 40 hours a week .. entitled to anything more than a bare subsistence life where.. for instance.. that molar that could have been saved with a root canal and a cap… is now a hole in their gumline.

    There’s a country song called “A Country Boy can survive”.

    It might be right now the Deer Hunting with Jesus.. crowd

    but as Zeus and that song points out, Country Boys don’t do so well in the big city…

    and yet.. if we paid them $20 an hour at Walmart – there would be some major caterwauling… I suspect. Heck.. we’d have to pay 8 bucks for 3lbs of coffee… and stuff..

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