Virginia's rich areas richer; poor get poorer

Income Gap Grows in the 1990s

The Associated Press

RICHMOND - Northern Virginia continues to have the states highest median incomes for couples. while the lowest incomes are found in rural western Virginia, according to a University of Virginia analysis of state income tax data. The survey by the university's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service also showed that disparities grew between affluent and depressed regions of the state throughout the boom years of the 1990s.

The median adjusted gross income for married couples in the state as a whole was $53,745 in 1999. the most recent figure available. That means that half the state's married couples earned more and half earned less. That was 5.7 percent more than in 1998 and the fifth year in a row of real income increases.

Loudoun County had the highest median income, $78,798. eclipsing Fairfax County for the first time as the state's income leader. Fairfax County's income was $78,168, followed by Falls Church at $77,598, Arlington County at $75,298 and Prince William at $69,936. All five localities are in the Washington, D.C. suburbs.

The region enjoyed phenomenal growth during the record economic expansion of the 1990s, driven largely by the expansion of technology and Internet companies that proliferated around the nation's capital. The industry created an abundance of high-paying jobs and attracted well-educated new residents to the region, said the study's authors, John L. Knapp and Stephen C. Kulp, economists at the Cooper Center.

"Some major metro areas have a real advantage because of a heavy concentration of skilled work force and support-type industries that other industries want in close proximity and other areas have advantages that you can't replicate in others," said Knapp. "You can't replicate the advantage of having a deep-water port like Hampton Roads does, or the advantage of being just across the Potomac from the nation's capital," he said.

The opposite was true for the mountainotis counties in Virginia's western tip, hit hard by the downturn in the coal industry. There, 25 percent of the married couple's tax returns reported less than $15,000 in adjusted gross income, well below the 1999 poverty level of $16,895 for a family of four. Lee County was the lowest with median income of $26,770. Buchanan County was $27,894, Dickinson County was $27,903, Russell County was $29,597 and Highland County was $30,843.

Reviving the region's flagging economy was a major thrust of Gov.-elect Mark Warner's campaign, and George Allen campaigned extensively in the area in his successful U.S. Senate race in 2000, but many of its problems defy political solutions, Knapp said. "Southwest Virginia is a region whose economy is based on resources like minerals and timber, and it has problems of very difficult terrain and access and buildable sites for industry," he said.