Danville’s higher-than-average poverty rate has been slowly decreasing the past several years, partly due to population decline and an improving economy.
“It’s pretty much steadily declining since 2010,” said Hamilton Lombard, research specialist with the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia.
The decrease in Danville’s population – as well as its poverty level - has occurred partly because there are fewer young families with children in the area. Not only does that fuel a drop in birth rates and a rise in death rates, it also causes a decline in poverty because younger people tend to be poorer and not yet in their peak earning years, Lombard said.
“One advantage with an older population is lower poverty,” Lombard said, adding that more government programs for seniors reduce the poverty rate among older people.
Since 2010, the poverty rate has slowly fallen in Danville, he said. It was 23.6 percent in 2014 before inching down a tenth of a percentage point to 23.5 percent in 2015. The rate dropped a little more than a percentage point to 22.3 percent in 2016, Lombard said, citing U.S. Census Bureau numbers.
According to federal guidelines, an income of $24,600 per year for a family of four is poverty-level. That figure is $12,060 per year for an individual.
Danville’s population has dropped by about 20 percent since 1990, from 53,056 that year to 42,260 in 2016, according to U.S. Census Bureau numbers.
The city is not unique when it comes to a steadily declining poverty rate, said Karl Stauber, president and CEO of the non-profit community development group Danville Regional Foundation. It’s going down throughout the country.
“We ride the same waves that every other community rides,” Stauber said.
Since the Great Recession and its disruption, there has been a slow and gradual improvement, he pointed out.
However, the decline in population has been the product of lack of job opportunities here, Stauber said.
Though poverty is on the decline in Danville, it’s still much higher than most other places in the country.
In 1970, Danville and the commonwealth overall had the same median household income.
“We were all pretty much in the same place,” Stauber said.
But by 2015, the city’s median household income was half that of the state.
“That picture tells you a whole lot,” Stauber said.
A variety of factors is behind Danville’s poverty level.
“Many factors can drive an area’s poverty rate, ranging from lack of educational attainment to low wages, and many of these factors are interconnected,” said David Eichenthal, executive director of the National Resource Network, a Washington, D.C.-based economic development think tank for municipalities.
The same factors contributing to the poverty rate can lead to population decline, especially a lack of jobs, Eichenthal said.
“Residents who cannot find employment may move away from the city to pursue other opportunities,” he said. “Worse, a declining population may result in other negative factors such as housing vacancy and blight, which further drives residents away.”
Eichenthal and the network are conducting a five-year financial planning forecast to help Danville officials anticipate revenues and spending levels over the coming years.
Cities facing poverty and population decline can become trapped in a cycle of structural deficits, Eichenthal said. A balanced budget may be essential to the governance of a city, but that alone won’t attract many new residents, he said.
“Fiscal stability is a necessary but not sufficient aspiration for distressed cities,” Eichenthal said. “Multi-year plans are a means of ensuring that cities also have the means to make those beneficial investments for quality of life and economic competitiveness.”
Danville City Manager Ken Larking said officials have been trying to make Danville a more desirable place to live, and that has included making the River District more attractive.
“We’ve tried to increase amenities downtown,” Larking said, citing the Riverwalk Trail, the bike trail system and the bike share program as examples.
Everything that makes Danville more attractive can help grow the city’s middle-class community, Larking said.
Workforce development aimed at enabling people to gain skills to perform the high-paying jobs that officials are working to attract helps, he said.
Years ago, area residents and others across the country could make a decent wage without a high school degree, Larking pointed out.
“That was a common experience in Danville,” he said. “Today, if you don’t have a post-high school degree or certificate, your chances of competing in the workforce … are pretty slim.”