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Rising living costs hurt lower income county residents more, report says

D.C. region price increases over the last decade for basic needs (via Fairfax County)

Sufficient health care, college degrees, and homeownership are becoming increasingly unattainable for Fairfax County residents with low to moderate incomes, a new report finds.

Late last month, Fairfax County released its “Needs Assessment” study, which comes out every three years with data on the current economic conditions in the county and the impact those conditions have on residents.

The report paints a pretty harrowing picture in light of the pandemic and recent inflation, particularly for lower-income residents. Low to moderate incomes are generally defined as those earning 60% or below the area median income. In 2021, that number was $77,400 for a family of four.

Just in the last year, those living on a limited income are having more trouble affording basic needs, as rising cost-of-living expenses mean lower-income households are spending more than they did in the past.

“Fairfax County residents with moderate to low income may have little to no money remaining after covering essential expenses, such as food and housing,” the report says. “This limits a household’s ability to build savings and restricts economic competitiveness.”

According to the report, household incomes have not kept pace with rising costs of essential expenses over the past decade.

In Fairfax County, the median household income has gone up about 21% since 2012. However, food, housing, and transportation all have risen more in that timeframe. Most notably, health care costs have risen by a whopping 41% in the last decade.

“Longer-term, health care costs have increased the most over 10 years, which may present challenges for residents who do not have health insurance coverage,” the report says.

As a result, the lowest-income households in the county are spending much more on health care, percentage-wise, than other income brackets.

The lowest 20% of households by income are spending nearly 29% of their expenses on health care, while those in the middle are spending between 15% to 17%.

Consumer prices have also gone up more in this past year than at any other point in the previous four decades. Tuition and child care now cost nearly 4% more than last year, housing more than 5%, health care 7%, and food 8%, according to the report.

Transportation costs a whopping 18% more than it did in 2021, mostly due to rising gas prices.

Changes in cost of living expenses over the past year and five years in Fairfax County (via Fairfax County)

Higher education also costs significantly more than it did in the past.

Nationally, the annual tuition cost for a four-year, in-state public college today is more than 2.5 times higher than three decades ago, even after adjusting for inflation.

“For many Virginia residents, including some in Fairfax County, a college degree is increasingly unattainable,” the Needs Assessment says.

In addition, housing costs have gone up by 23.5% in the last decade, exceeding the 21% income rise over the same timeframe. This has left more households “severely” cost burdened, meaning they spend more than 50% of their income on housing.

However, the divide between renters and homeowners is significant, with 21% of renters severely cost burdened in 2020 compared to 8% of homeowners.

“Furthermore, many low-income families who are severely housing cost burdened live in substandard conditions,” notes the report.

There are also significant racial and ethnic disparities in terms of homeownership in the county.

Homeownership in Fairfax County, broken down by race and ethnicity (via Fairfax County)

“White residents own homes at a rate greater than their share of the population, while residents of all other races and Hispanic residents own homes at rates less than their share of the population,” the assessment says. “Since homeownership is one stepping stone on the path to wealth accumulation, this disparity may create challenges for the economic mobility of some households.”

The Needs Assessment does acknowledge and propose strategies to help alleviate the housing challenges in the county, including doubling the number of affordable units by 2034 and continuing systems to prevent eviction.

The county government will release additional analyses of the area’s housing and transportation situations in the future, according to the news release.

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