On the surface, Virginia’s urban Fairfax County is an economic success story. Its median household income of $110,292 is a reflection of the fact that the D.C. exurb has withstood the worst of the recession and come out on the other side as the second wealthiest county in the nation. A victory worth celebrating, to be sure. Yet with the region’s population quickly diversifying, ahead of the pace of the nation in fact, the county faces another challenge: making sure that all residents benefit from that healthy economy.
The recently released “Equitable Growth Profile of Fairfax County,” (prepared by PolicyLink and the University of Southern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity) shows that between 2000 and 2010, the number of people of color in Fairfax County went up 42 percent — versus a reduction of whites by 5 percent. Immigrants, Latinos in particular, have fueled that change. By 2040, 72 percent of the region will be people of color.
The profile also charts the county’s current income inequality problem.
The new “Equitable Growth Profile of Fairfax County” highlights income inequality in the region.
Fairfax County’s growing tech industry is an obvious source of employment, but officials need to make sure that residents are ready for the higher-paying jobs available.
“We know that our biggest growth industries in Northern Virginia are services and IT and we just don’t have the pipeline [set up quite yet],” says local IT professional Charles Britt.
Britt says that local schools have done a “tremendous job” of providing education for immigrant populations, but limited budgets mean efforts can fall short. He says he became aware of some of the hidden educational disparities once he became the STEM education coordinator at Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) two years ago.
“In the STEM area [in Fairfax] people often laud the successes and how great the schools are, but once I got into this role, there was a veil that got taken back,” says Britt. “I was able to see that there were challenges.”
The majority of NVCC’s students are the first in their families to go to college. Most have graduated from the public school system. In order to capture those students and funnel them into pursuing STEM-related professions, NVCC created a program called SySTEMic Solutions — a partnership between local career and technical education programs, the public school system and area businesses. Local sponsors include semiconductor company Micron and IT consulting company Telos. A competitive robotics program targeting middle-schoolers and high-schoolers operates out of local community centers and helps students to grasp math, science and collaboration.
At the county level, the release of the equitable growth profile comes at the same time that Fairfax’s strategic plan for economic growth was released. Within that, the county set a goal for advancing social equity in education, says Karla Bruce from the Fairfax County Department of Neighborhood and Community Services.
“[The profile] really reinforced what we already knew,” say Bruce. “We looked at it as validation versus sharing with us something we just weren’t unaware of. But what [it] did was allow us to do was to look at [the situation] from a perspective broader than human services.”
She adds that the county’s strong partnerships with local institutions and businesses will help them to go outside government agencies in order to create local dialogues and action plans. And now they’ll be armed for those conversations with solid statistics.
PolicyLink’s Sarita Turner says there’s power in the numbers. “Regions might be thinking about demographic changes and population growth, but not specifically who is in the population and what are the needs of those people going to be,” Turner explains. “Even those who are — and this is critical for successful strategic planning — don’t always have access to the type of data they need in order to look really deeply at these issues.”
To be successful at equitable economic development, Fairfax County will likely need to build on programs like SySTEMic Solutions.
“One of the things that we know is that it’s critically important is to ensure that there is a prepared workforce in a region,” says Turner. “That folks are getting access to opportunities and that they’re getting exposure and education to become critical thinkers, dynamic innovators and leaders. … The trajectory does not look bright unless we start to make investments in people differently.”
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Alexis Stephens was Next City’s 2014-2015 equitable cities fellow. She’s written about housing, pop culture, global music subcultures, and more for publications like Shelterforce, Rolling Stone, SPIN, and MTV Iggy. She has a B.A. in urban studies from Barnard College and an M.S. in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.