Many Families in Arlington, Virginia, Struggle to Afford Basic Needs. A Flexible Safety Net Can Help.


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Before and during the pandemic, millions of families have been forced to use public benefits to supplement low wages to afford basic needs. Despite new federal aid, this trend won’t end anytime soon. Financial relief is often overshadowed by the “cliff effect,” which occurs when a family’s income increases above a program’s edibility requirements, but the new wages are often less than the benefits the family loses. 

In Arlington County, Virginia, many residents are familiar with this reality. In this high-growth metropolitan area, the high median income (PDF) hides an increasingly unaffordable cost of living for families whose breadwinners are in essential jobs like housekeeping, health aides, and personal care.  These families are disproportionately families of color.

The Arlington Community Foundation (ACF) partnered with the Urban Institute, the Arlington County Department of Human Services, and Arlington Independent Media to illustrate the struggles of one hypothetical resident. In this video, we follow “Sandra,” a single Arlington mom who relies on earned income, public benefits, and community supports to get by. As Sandra earns more, her benefits drop, forcing her to make dire budget trade-offs and hampering her ability to achieve economic mobility.

We spoke with Anne Vor der Bruegge, Director of Grants and Initiatives at the Arlington Community Foundation, a partner in the national Shared Prosperity Partnership, to learn about the affordability pressures Arlington residents face, the foundation’s strategies for developing supportive safety net programs and pathways for economic mobility for residents with low incomes, and why Arlington cannot thrive if people earning low incomes are left behind.

Why is the Arlington Community Foundation focusing on strengthening the safety net and raising awareness about the cliff effect in Arlington?   

Arlington’s median household income is $129,000, yet significant income and quality-of-life disparities exist from one neighborhood to the next. 24,700 people, or 11 percent of our population, make under 30 percent of this area median income (AMI), or $38,700 for a family of four. Living costs for such a household here average three times that 

These families rely on public assistance and benefits for many expenses such as health care, food, and child care. Because of the benefits cliff, as these families start to earn more through wage increases, higher-paying jobs, or promotions, they lose benefits faster than the value of growing earnings. These conditions are punitive for the people on the lowest income rungs. Families must make unsustainable compromises to be able to live and be a part of our Arlington community.

What perception do people hold of Arlington’s quality of life, and how does Sandra’s story challenge that narrative?

Arlington has wracked up many high-level rankings. Most years, we are first or second in the state for best school system and healthiest community. Nationally, we are in the top handful of “best places” to start a restaurant, the fittest community, the best place for college grads, and–a few years ago –the third hippest place in the US. There are all these glowing things that Arlington is proud of. But the rankings and averages mask deep disparities. A significant chunk of people in Arlington experience real distress and cannot enjoy the prosperity that we enjoy as an over-all community.

Some people who watch the video are skeptical. They are not familiar with the cliff effect and do not know people who have this dilemma. They do not believe that even families making $63,000 can have such dire needs and still need public assistance. But that is the difficult context of Arlington.

How are individuals and families who face deep economic disparities making it work in Arlington?

People are forced to make difficult tradeoffs. “Affordable” housing is not affordable for people earning below 30 percent AMI. They need to fill in gaps with a housing grant or a Section 8 voucher. If they cannot get that, it will mean doubling or tripling up households in one apartment to share the expense; and when housing is crowded, that has ripple effects on the health and well-being of the household. Some may work multiple jobs, but if they are parents, then their children have much fewer interactions with them, which has its own negative impacts on child development.

People make urgent decisions under pressure when a crisis hits—whether it’s a broken-down car or an illness or a sick babysitter. From brain science studies, we know none of us can think straight or plan well when we’re under constant stress. Living constantly on the edge is like putting out fires all the time. Having some cushion and flexibility and the ability to not be caught in the tyranny of the moment is a luxury not everyone has.

What does Arlington lose when people earning under 30 percent AMI cave into affordability pressures and leave their Arlington community?

Arlington has a vision statement that emphasizes a caring, inclusive and welcoming community. And as a county, we passed an equity resolution that defines equity as, “everyone who lives here has the opportunity and resources for optimal well-being and to reach their full potential.” We chose those words carefully. Everyone will benefit if we take care of folks earning low incomes. There is not a tradeoff. 

Our affordability pressures are making this vision difficult to achieve. The county just updated its affordable housing needs analysis, and it shows we have stark mismatches (PDF) in the demand for affordable housing and the supply. The needs analysis shows that 8,000 out of the 10,000 households living at or below 30 percent AMI are renters. For these 8,000 renting households in this income band, there are only 1,353 units affordable at 30% percent AMI. If you add in the available tenant-based subsidies,  only about half of renters in this income band have housing that is affordable to them. We need to right-size the number of affordable units, subsidies, and housing grants in Arlington.

Most of those earning under 30 percent AMI are our essential workers. Childcare aides, people in construction, health aides, office and home cleaners. They are so critical to our economy. The ecosystem here and in any community is dependent on this income diversity to have a healthy and vibrant economic environment, much less a rich cultural and community environment. There’s an economic mandate to all of this, and many of us feel there is also a moral mandate.

What the Arlington Community Foundation and its partners’ top priorities for addressing the complex challenges residents face?

Our highest priority is to use whatever we have in terms of voice and resources to address the affordability pressure and inequities in quality of life for our low-income residents. We use the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty’s three-part definition on economic mobility to guide our work: increased income and assets, a sense of personal power, and being valued and connected in the community.

Through our Shared Prosperity Initiative, we are promoting deeply affordable housing in terms of more bricks and mortar units and more subsidies. We are also looking for ways to improve access to affordable child-care and to create plausible workforce development pathways with living wages that are accessible to people in terms of their education level, language needs, and transportation options.

In 2021, ACF and its community partners are planning to address the affordability and benefits cliff dilemma through an 18-month unconditional cash pilot. Protecting the recipients' benefits as their income increases is of utmost importance. After nearly a year of negotiations, the State has agreed that the monthly cash will not count toward their eligibility for Medicaid and other benefits.

The recipients will receive $500 per month for 18 months. ACF will need to raise $2 million from corporate and philanthropic donors for this program, $1.8 million of which will be in the direct cash payments. The target households will be 200 current Arlington housing grant recipients.

These are households that are working and are stably housed and are ready to focus on steps toward economic mobility that the unconditional cash can allow. The unconditional funds can be used for what a family needs most in real time—paying off debt, taking a job training class, college savings for kids, or allowing parents less time away from home in a second job. This is getting at that personal power aspect of economic mobility, or dignity, which is so important for all of us.

The Urban Institute has the evidence to show what it will take to create a society where everyone has a fair shot at achieving their vision of success. 

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