Harrisonburg... 'Hardest Hit' by Poverty?

Sep 3, 2018

Brian Shull (left) is the City of Harrisonburg’s director of economic development. Sam Nickels is the executive director of Our Community Place in Harrisonburg.
Credit Christopher Clymer Kurtz

A recent USA Today report named Harrisonburg as the Virginia city “hit hardest by extreme poverty.” City officials say that report is misleading.  And advocates for people in need point to other measures of poverty. WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.

Harrisonburg’s Director of Economic Development Brian Shull said the USA Today report overlooked the impact on poverty rates by university students who live off campus.

BRIAN SHULL: It didn’t get into that detail. It just showed Harrisonburg having very high poverty. It’s a shame when you’re not able to do a deeper dive into that.

Shull said that a recent retail market analysis for the city that accounted for those university students put the city’s poverty rate at 10.6 percent, lower than the state’s rate of 11 percent.

But other indicators suggest that Harrisonburg isn’t so well off.

Sam Nickels, executive director of Our Community Place, points to wage levels and the lack of needed affordable housing.

SAM NICKELS: We know that lots of folks are really struggling with trying to stay out of poverty, trying to stay out of homelessness.

And there are other statistics: A United Way report says that in 2015, the rate of households earning more than the federal poverty level but not enough to cover the basic costs of living was 39 percent in Harrisonburg, compared to 28 percent statewide. Another indicator? Public school students qualifying for free lunches at participating schools: In the city last year, that was 64 percent, compared to 39 percent statewide.