Person counts dollar bills (via Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash)

A pilot program that will give monthly cash assistance to select low-income residents is in development in Fairfax County.

While eligibility criteria, payment amounts, and other details are still being determined, the county has allocated $1.5 million to the effort from its American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, as noted in a stimulus update to the Board of Supervisors’ budget policy committee yesterday (Tuesday).

First proposed at a health and human services committee meeting on June 29, the pilot will help people improve their financial situation by providing an additional, flexible source of income, county staff say.

“At its core, it’s an economic mobility initiative, but it’s also an anti-poverty initiative, and it’s certainly innovative,” Deputy County Executive Chris Leonard told the board last summer.

If it implements the pilot, Fairfax County will join a nationwide experiment with basic income programs that has also drawn in Arlington County and Alexandria. Research from around the world suggests the initiatives boost people’s happiness, health, and economic stability without limiting employment.

Fairfax County plans to model its pilot on the nonprofit UpTogether, which gives underserved individuals and families access to cash investments through an online platform that doubles as a social network.

UpTogether’s emphasis on trusting recipients to make their own decisions and building community deviates from traditional social services, which deliver vital resources like food or housing but often come with conditions, such as work requirements.

Fairfax County is looking at the nonprofit UpTogether as a model for its proposed basic income pilot program (via Fairfax County)

It’s the difference between helping people survive poverty and giving them the tools to escape it, Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay explained, suggesting families, particularly those with young children, as a possible target population for the pilot.

“Part of what I think our obligation to do is to stop this generational poverty that seems to happen everywhere in the country,” McKay said. “If you’re going to break the trends of generational poverty, you somehow have to get to the youth.” Read More

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Changes to Virginia’s gas tax and transit fees will eventually bring savings to Fairfax County bus riders facing financial hardships.

Customized Fairfax Connector bus passes will cut fares in half for low-income riders with a new program that might begin this coming summer, county staff told the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors at a transportation committee meeting on Tuesday (Dec. 14).

The county plans to reduce fares for people with incomes up to 225% of the federal poverty level. That would put the eligibility cap around $29,000 for an individual or $59,625 for a family of four.

Residents of Fairfax County as well as the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church will be eligible.

The county’s transportation staff is working with the Department of Family Services and Housing and Community Development to get users of those services the discounted passes because they’ve already had their income screened. The county could later expand its outreach to others who qualify.

“I think this is going to be a great, great program once we get it piloted,” Lee District Supervisor Rodney Lusk said.

The county will receive $5.49 million in state funds to pilot the effort for three years as part of Virginia’s new Transit Ridership Incentive Program (TRIP), which supports projects that reduce barriers for low-income travelers or improve connectivity in urban areas, such as by creating dedicated bus lanes.

The grant program was created as part of a transit funding overhaul approved by Virginia General Assembly in 2020. The legislation also raised the gas tax by 5 cents per gallon on July 1, 2020 and again on July 1, 2021.

With about 30,000 daily riders, Fairfax Connector is the largest local bus system in Northern Virginia. It already offers free rides to middle and high school students, and the county temporarily suspended fares for all riders for part of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

County staff are slated to update the board on the reduced fare effort this spring.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay asked staff to return with more information about the cost of implementing and administering the program compared to “the cost of just waiving fares, period,” noting that some neighboring localities are looking at eliminating fares.

“I support this needs-based one, given the size and complexity of ours,” McKay said. “But I do think we need to know what the administrative cost of this is and weigh that against a larger, maybe more aggressive way to provide transit as something that our residents in need can utilize.”

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Fairfax County Public Library branches that serve low-income neighborhoods, including Reston Regional Library, tend to have more cards blocked due to fines

Fairfax County Public Libraries will no longer charge fines for most overdue materials, joining other jurisdictions in the D.C. area in an effort to maintain equity.

The FCPL Board of Trustees unanimously approved the policy in a meeting on Wednesday (Dec. 8). The new system, which begins on Jan. 1, would also reset fines that have already been incurred.

Board of Trustees Chair Fran Millhouser said the policy change is intended to encourage all individuals to take advantage of the library system.

“The FCPL Board of Trustees has approved eliminating fines on most materials and joins surrounding jurisdictions in removing this significant barrier to equitable access to information and library services,” said Millhouser.

The move comes after the board discussed the issue with the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in mid-October. An FCPL analysis showed that overdue fines affect young people and individuals in low-income areas.

Blocked cards — cards that are not allowed to check out materials due to fines exceeding $15 — were more prevalent in the following areas:

  • Reston Regional Library
  • City of Fairfax Regional Library
  • George Mason Regional Library
  • Kingstowne Library
  • Sherwood Regional Library

Before the pandemic, 17% of all cardholders had blocked cards. Blocked youth cards accounted for 23% of the total youth cardholder population. A link was found between low-income communities and blocked cards.

Library systems across the country, including in neighboring Alexandria City, Loudoun County, and Prince William County, have adopted fine-free models — a move that has resulted in a surge of returned materials.

Fines will still apply to materials in special collections like interlibrary loan materials, Chromebooks and mobile hotspots.

At the Thursday meeting, board trustee Liz Walker encouraged the library system to further identify what items were still not fine-free. 

But Millhouser noted that a prescriptive approach was not appropriate because the library offers many resources.

“It’s good to leave it open as the library just becomes so diversified… we’re not just a library anymore.”

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Fairfax County Public Library branches that serve low-income neighborhoods, including Reston Regional Library, tend to have more cards blocked due to fines

After a slight delay, Fairfax County Public Library has come to the same realization as dozens of other library systems in the D.C. area and across the country: that fining patrons for overdue materials doesn’t work.

The library’s Board of Trustees got informal but clear support from the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors at a joint meeting yesterday (Tuesday) to stop FCPL’s practice of charging late fees for unreturned books, DVDs, and other resources.

The trustees must still officially vote to eliminate library fines, but if that happens in November or December as anticipated, the new fine-free policy will take effect on Jan. 1, 2022, FCPL Director Jessica Hudson told the Board of Supervisors, noting that people will still be expected to pay back the cost of lost or damaged items.

“I have not heard anyone on this board that doesn’t wholeheartedly support [the fine-free strategy],” Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said. “So, [I] look forward to the library board moving forward with that, and being able to accomplish that would be, I think, a big win for all our users.”

Fines Affect Library Access

Inspired by the One Fairfax policy, which commits the county to considering racial and social equity in its policies and decision-making, the FCPL Board of Trustees started exploring the idea of eliminating fines with the creation of an ad hoc committee in April.

Tasked with reviewing trends and determining the effectiveness of fines, the committee found that fines are not only futile at incentivizing the timely return of materials, but instead, actually discourage people from returning overdue items and utilizing library services.

“If you have a book checked out, and it’s a month late, and you know that you’ve got fines accrued on it, it doesn’t really make you want to run into the library and quickly turn it in and pay your fine,” Hudson said. “Instead, it acts as a punitive measure that ensures that some members of our population are never going to come back to the library.”

The committee recommended that FCPL eliminate fines at a Board of Trustees meeting on July 14, citing the policy’s ineffectiveness, its disproportionate impact on youth and low-income communities, and declining revenue from fines in a statement that the board accepted on Sept. 8.

According to the committee, 17% of the approximately 420,000 library cardholders that FCPL had prior to the pandemic — including 23% of cardholders younger than 18 — had their cards blocked because their accounts carried more than $15 in outstanding fines.

The number of blocked cards correlated closely with neighborhood income, with low-income areas served by the Reston, City of Fairfax, George Mason, Kingstowne, and Sherwood regional libraries having particularly high rates, according to Hudson. Read More

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