Poverty in Rockbridge

Rockbridge is a thriving area in many respects. Nevertheless, the area is not immune from poverty. As Pastor Lyndon Sayers of Good Shepherd Evangelical Lutheran Church notes, poverty in Rockbridge is compounded by isolation and relative invisibility:

Poverty impacts a person's ability to fulfill his or her basic needs, decreasing opportunities and can thus lessen quality of life. In the United States, individuals and families are classified as being impoverished if their pre-tax cash income falls below a specific threshold. Mollie Orshansky, an economist working for the Social Security Administration, created this threshold in 1963, which takes into consideration family size and composition.2 By multiplying the average family's food expenditures by three-, she set an absolute threshold that became the Official Poverty Measure (OPM) for the United States.3 Pre-tax cash income includes not only wages and salaries from work, but also retirement or pension income, child support, and cash assistance programs such as unemployment compensation, Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, Disability Income, and TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families). It does not, however, include non-cash benefits such as subsidized housing or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps).4

Based on the 2016 Federal Poverty Guidelines seen below in Figure 2, a family of four would be considered impoverished if their household income were less than $24,300.5 Some assistance programs, such as the National School Lunch Program, use a multiple of this amount (such as 130% or 185%) to determine eligibility.6 Families with incomes above 250% of the poverty line are generally considered middle-income and are rarely eligible for public assistance.

Figure 2: 2016 Federal Poverty Guidelines7
Household Size100%133%150%200%250%300%400%
1 11,880 15,800 17,820 23,760 29,700 35,640 47,520
2 16,020 21,307 24,030 32,040 40,050 48,060 64,080
3 20,160 26,813 30,240 40,320 50,400 60,480 80,640
4 24,300 32,319 36,450 18,600 60,750 72,900 97,200
5 28,440 37,825 42,660 56,880 71,100 85,320 113,760
6 32,580 43,331 48,870 65,160 81,450 97,740 130,320
7 36,730 48,851 55,095 73,460 91,825 110,190 146,920
8 40,890 54,384 61,335 81,780 102,225 122,670 163,560

According to the 2013 U.S. Census, median household incomes in the Rockbridge area were significantly lower than the rest of Virginia ($64,792) and the United States ($53,482):

  • Rockbridge County: $48,550;
  • Lexington City: $36,840;
  • Buena Vista City: $32,789.8

The poverty rates for the Lexington, Buena Vista, and Rockbridge County, in comparison to the state and nation, are found in Figure 3.9 Compared to the state average of 11.8%, the Rockbridge area collectively holds a relatively high rate of poverty at 15.4%.10 While the percentage of people under the FPL in Lexington appears to be higher than the County and Buena Vista, it is important to keep in mind that the U.S. Census Bureau counts anyone living in a house or apartment in their calculations, including college and law school students who typically report little to no income. Community experts and longtime area residents tend to agree that Census numbers paint an artificially grim picture of average income and an artificially high poverty rate of 24.1% in the city of Lexington.11

It is important to note that the federal poverty line is not a measure of economic self-sufficiency. This statistic does not include many other people in Rockbridge who, while not officially income poor, face vulnerabilities such as substandard housing, food insecurity, or social isolation.

Because of these failings in the official poverty rate, the United States also tracks poverty through the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM). Rather than solely looking at pre-tax income, the SPM takes into account cash income plus noncash benefits (including SNAP, National School Lunch Program, WIC, and housing and home energy subsidies, which can be used to meet a household's basic food, clothing, shelter, and utility (FCSU) needs).12 Significant expenditures, such as taxes, work-, and childcare-related expenses, medical out-of-pocket expenses, and child support payments are then deducted. The SPM threshold adjusts for family type and geography, and is set by taking the average of the 30th to 36th percentile of FCSU expenditures from a household with two children and multiplying by 1.2. Some experts argue that the SPM presents a more realistic picture of family resources.13

Public assistance numbers complement and correct the picture painted by the OPM. Figure 4 provides public assistance rates in the Rockbridge area for Medicaid and FAMIS (Virginia's health insurance for children), SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.) Based on these figures, we can conclude that the level of economic security is significantly higher in Lexington than in Rockbridge County and Buena Vista.14

Poverty challenges human capabilities in multiple ways. The remainder of this guidebook will examine several significant areas of human capacity in the Rockbridge area, analyzing both the opportunities and challenges faced by local residents.

1 Lyndon Sayers (Pastor) in discussion with Daniela Leon, June 16, 2015.

2Jessie Willis, "How We Measure Poverty,"(Oregon Center for Public Policy, February 2000), accessed October 5, 2015, http://www.ocpp.org/poverty/how/.


4"How Is Poverty Measured in the United States?" (University of Wisconsin: Institute for Research on Poverty), accessed October 5, 2015, http://www.irp.wisc.edu/faqs/faq2.htm.

5 "Federal Poverty Guidelines," (Families USA, February 2016), accessed June 17, 2016, http://familiesusa.org/product/federal-poverty-guidelines.

6 "National School Lunch Program: Program Fact Sheet," (United States Department of Agriculture: Food and Nutrition Service), accessed June 27, 2016, http://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/NSLPFactSheet.pdf.

7 'Federal Poverty Guidelines'

8 See in table: Median Household Income, 2010-2014, "QuickFacts Beta," (United States Census Bureau), accessed June 17, 2016, http://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045214/00.

9 See in table: Income and Poverty, "QuickFacts Beta," (United States Census Bureau), accessed July 14, 2015, http://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045214/00.

10 See in table: Percent of Population (All ages) Living Below 100% Poverty, 2000-2014, "Local Department of Social Services Profile Report, SFY 2015," (Virginia Department of Social Services), accessed June 17, 2016, https://www.dss.virginia.gov/geninfo/reports/agency_wide/ldss_profile.cgi.

11 See in table: Median Household Incomes, 2010-2014, "QuickFacts Beta."

12 Kathleen Short, "The Supplemental Poverty Measure: 2014," (United States Census Bureau, September 2015), accessed June 17, 2016, https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2015/demo/p60-254.pdf.

13 Ibid.

14From Meredith Downey, "Public Assistance June 2015," (Rockbridge Area Department of Social Services), accessed July 20, 2015.