As a native Virginian growing up in the Valley region, I can still remember learning about the other geographic regions of the Commonwealth. While much of the emphasis on the differences among the regions was geographic and natural, the differences I have come to know are much broader and deeper than grade school students could grasp. The region along the ocean is appropriately called the Tidewater as it was the ocean and bay that determined so much of its physical features as well as its history for it was where the earliest explorers and colonizers visited and settled. The falls in the rivers dictated westward expansion as it was not possible to use water of any size beyond that demarcation.
The Piedmont between the Tidewater and mountains was an area that attracted farmers. The rolling hills that make up the Piedmont may be the state’s most beautiful region. Beyond the mountains, Blue Ridge and the Alleghenies, the Shenandoah Valley is a region without parallel in beauty and productivity in farming. The mountains that extend into the far Southwest were once rich in mineral resources and forest products, but that wealth has dwindled in modern days.
Often in modern-day political debate the differences and challenges faced by the regions of the state get muffled by misinformation and misunderstanding. Many Northern Virginia political campaigns are marked by rhetoric promising to go to Richmond and bring home “our fair share.” While state assistance across the regions varies by many different factors, it is the case that Northern Virginia may get a greater amount of dollars than other regions. The amount of aid received compared to the need leaves many downstate regions underfunded in relation to their need.
A recent report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) found a great variance among the regions on measures of wealth. In Southwest Virginia, approximately 23 percent of all households are living in poverty while in Northern Virginia approximately 5 percent of households are living in poverty. A comparison of median household income across the regions shows stark differences. The median household income for the state in 2021 was $81,100. In Northern Virginia, however, the median household income was $131,900; in Arlington and Alexandria $119,000. At the other end of the chart of median household income, Southwest Virginia is at $38,500; Shenandoah Valley at $64,100; Hampton Roads at $73,500; Richmond area $76,200; and Piedmont at $84,200.
A huge challenge for policy makers is bridging the gap across regions addressing sources of wealth and differing needs in a fair and legally justified way. The charge of taking from the rich and giving to the poor has a moral as well as legal justification. Providing education and health services to children must take into account factors beyond relative income. That is why there is a composite index that attempts to mathematically measure the ability of a locality to pay for its own services. After all, historically termed a Commonwealth we need to find ways to meet the needs of individuals in whatever region they may live.