A Postcard from the Old Dominion
Since moving back to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley a few months ago, I’ve been noticing how things have changed in the nearly three decades I’ve been away — changes that a tourist or weekend visitor might miss, but that jump out at someone who grew up here.
Before I get to those changes, some orientation:
The name of my hometown, Staunton, is pronounced as if it were spelled Stanton. Please hold your comments about how peculiar the pronunciation is — Stauntonians are sick of hearing it. And just for fun, here’s a link to a Wikipedia article on all the place names that have counter-intuitive English pronunciations. Staunton is not all that exotic compared to others. Worcester comes to mind.
I’m living in Fishersville, mid-way between the cities of Staunton and Waynesboro, in Augusta County. The population of the Staunton-Waynesboro metropolitan area (it makes me smile to write that, but it’s a real Office of Management and Budget designation) is about 120,000. I’m 35 miles west of Charlottesville, 90 miles northeast of Roanoke, and 150 miles southwest of DC.
Spending weekends and vacations here since 2013, I’d begun to notice how things had changed. Now that I’m back full time, those differences have come into sharper focus.
More affluent people are living here now, or at least coming to visit. The signs are everywhere. Downtown Staunton boasts at least four (depending on what counts) fine dining restaurants and an entire store devoted to ultra-premium olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The buildings of the former Western State Hospital are being redeveloped into condos that start at $295,000 — a bargain for DC but a bit pricey for downstate Virginia, especially for condos.
Census data confirm my impression that some people here are doing well. In 2000, only 2.1 percent of households in Augusta County earned more than $150,000 per year. By 2010 the number had increased to 4.2 percent, and by 2015 it was 7.3 percent. (Yes, I know inflation may account for some of that increase and I’m not an economist. But that seems like a big jump.)
More people may be doing well, but more people are also poor. Almost every time I leave the house, I pass at least one person standing at an intersection holding a sign asking for help, something I don’t remember happening when I was kid. The proliferation of check cashing and title loan companies, pawn shops, and thrift stores is also noticeable. Goodwill, which occupied a small downtown storefront in my childhood, has taken over the old Kmart.
Unfortunately, the data also support this observation. In 2000, the individual poverty rate in Augusta County was 5.8 percent — the lowest since President Johnson launched the War on Poverty in 1964. By 2015, it was 9.5 percent. In 2015, 14.2 percent of children in Augusta County were living in poverty — an increase from 11.5 percent in 2010 and 6.9 percent in 2000.
The trend lines are clear. Over a 15-year period, the number of households in Augusta County earning more than $150,000 a year has tripled. And during that same time, the percentage of children living in poverty has doubled.
I’ve focused on Augusta County because it’s the largest by far of the three jurisdictions in my area. (In Virginia, cities are not part of counties.) But Staunton and Waynesboro — cities of about 25,000 — show a similar trend. In Staunton, the individual poverty rate in 2015 was 17.2 percent — up from 11.7 percent in 2000. In Waynesboro, it was 18.2 percent — up from 12.8 percent in 2000.
Augusta County, even more than Staunton and Waynesboro, is overwhelmingly white. During and after the 2016 elections, the challenges facing poor and working class white Americans were all over the news. For me, those stories evoked fading industrial towns in rust belt states. The possibility that poverty was increasing in the places where I grew up never even crossed my mind — especially as I was seeing new restaurants, art studios, artisanal bakeries, and craft breweries popping up all over town.
In last year’s presidential election, Augusta County voters chose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by a 49-point margin. I wasn’t surprised that Trump won the county, but I was stunned by the margin. (In Staunton, home to Mary Baldwin University, Clinton eked out a win.)
Since I moved back, I’ve been trying to understand why my neighbors voted so overwhelmingly for Trump. Looking at the income and poverty data, I can see why many people here believe their lives are getting worse. And why they might feel let down and left behind by establishment politicians of both political parties.
During the 16 years of the Bush and Obama administrations, some people here got richer. But many got poorer. Despite the low unemployment rate (currently 3.5 percent in Augusta County) and the rising stock market, people are falling behind. In 2000 average household income was $43,045. In 2015, it was $54,558 — an increase, but $5,000 less than would have been needed just to keep pace with inflation.
After living and working for so many years in the DC region — where those living in poverty are predominantly people of color — I’d never given much consideration to poverty among white people. In the DC region, eliminating the consequences of structural and systemic racism would come close to eliminating poverty. That’s not true here.
Systemic and structural racism have certainly contributed to poverty and inequality here. The same inequities and racialized outcomes that exist in the DC area are also present here, and we need to call out and dismantle the systems that produce them. But even in the absence of racial inequities, a substantial and growing number of people in Staunton, Waynesboro, and Augusta County would still be poor.
Last November as I watched the election returns coming in, the red counties all across the rural South and Midwest were an abstraction to me. I understood their discontent in theory, but they were far removed from my suburban life in Montgomery County, Maryland. Now I live in a red county, and the evidence of growing inequality is concrete. I don’t have any profound insights or remedies to propose, and my political views haven’t changed. But I am listening, and learning, and cultivating empathy where I can.
It's good to be home. There's work to be done, and I have a lot to learn about the Old Dominion.