Orange Dot Report 5.0

Family Self-Sufficiency in the Charlottesville Region

Ridge Schuyler, Michele Claibourn, Lee LeBoeuf, Elizabeth Mitchell1

October 27, 2022


The first Orange Dot Report was released in 2011, and it served both to describe the local income deficit—the gap between what families receive as income and what they need to earn to be self-sufficient—in Charlottesville and to develop strategies for creating pathways to self-sufficiency for families in the region. This initial effort launched the innovative Network2Work framework pioneered at Piedmont Virginia Community College, a process that brings together a Job-Seeker Network, an Employer Network, and a Provider Network to match job-seekers to family-sustaining jobs and careers and to connect them to community resources using neighborhood-based volunteers.

As Network2Work has grown, the Orange Dot Report has also expanded, encompassing Charlottesville and Albemarle County in Orange Dot Report 2.0 (2015) and the entire region (Albemarle, Buckingham, Charlottesville, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa, and Nelson) in Orange Dot Report 3.0 (2018) and Orange Dot Report 4.0 (2021). Along the way, the report has come to serve as a central resource for the community and an important update on the progress of our community.

This effort, Orange Dot Report 5.0, represents the continuation of our progress toward a more fully and equitable thriving region. Incorporating an updated description of the condition of families in our larger region, Orange Dot 5.0 marks the beginning of an annual update completed in partnership between Network2Work@PVCC and The Equity Center at the University of Virginia. We will be providing an update of the report in early spring incorporating the most recent information from the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey along with more assessment of community efforts and progress in creating realistic pathways to self-sufficiency.


In the larger Charlottesville community, 9,413 families (14%) do not make enough money to afford the essentials of life—food, shelter, clothing and utilities—and the added costs associated with working—childcare and transportation. This number represents the families making less than $35,000 in our region.

This is a significant improvement since the first Orange Dot Report in 2011. For the Charlottesville region, defined here as the city of Charlottesville and the surrounding counties of Albemarle, Buckingham, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson, the comparable number of families struggling in the region in 2011 was 12,552, which was 21% of families. Over one out of five families. The 2022 number–9,413 families–is a 25% reduction in the number of struggling families in the region.

We recognize, however, that the cost of essentials has gone up over time. For example, these basic needs currently require over $45,000 a year for a single parent with a toddler in childcare.2 In this report, we continue to use the $35,000 income threshold as the break point for defining struggling families to remain consistent with the four prior reports, so these numbers should be understood as a minimum–at least 9,413 families are struggling.

While families facing economic insecurity live throughout our region, the likelihood that a family is struggling varies by race and by place. The struggle is not equally shared.

  • Thirty-two percent of Black families make less than $35,000 a year, compared to 11% of white families, a persistent gap resulting from past and ongoing policies that suppress investment, opportunity, and wealth creation in Black communities.
  • The percent of families struggling overall is highest in Buckingham County, at 28%, and lowest in Louisa County, at 8%.
  • Within every locality except Fluvanna, there are neighborhoods where a quarter or more of families have less than family-sufficient incomes. The four neighborhoods with the highest percent of struggling families are in the city of Charlottesville.

Our community has seen progress since this work began in 2011, but there are still too many struggling families. For a region as prosperous as ours, however, ten thousand families is not too many to help.


“[W]henever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth […] All labor has dignity.”

— Martin Luther King Jr.3

The last few years have brought our country’s and our community’s ongoing struggles and inequities into stark relief. The continued pandemic, the growing housing affordability crisis, the increasing volatility of man-made climate change have created challenges for all of us. But low-income individuals, especially individuals of color, are suffering disproportionately, both physically and financially.

Despite working hard, too many families struggle to make ends meet, in part because their work is not treated with dignity. Or at least, their labor is not valued as though their work has dignity. While the enormous value, the essentialness, of the labor performed by “front-line” workers became clear to all during the pandemic, many people laboring in these positions do not earn enough to provide for their families. For example, the so-called “caring economy”—childcare workers, home health aides, teachers—provides enormous social value, but is not given market value. Rising prices and inflation will only worsen the strain.

We all seek security and stability: to feed our families, to see our children thrive, to create community with others, to promote our wellbeing. For families experiencing economic insecurity, all of this is jeopardized. When faced daily with financial struggles—to pay for housing, to repair the car that carries you to work, to put food on the table, to find and afford a safe environment for your children—it is difficult to be the parent you want to be, the worker you know you could be, or the person you were meant to be. We all deserve a chance to thrive, but we are all not yet given that chance. Towards that end, we must seek to build an equitable economy, one intentionally constructed on a foundation of racial justice.

Knowing that we can only solve issues we can understand, we provide a snapshot of the families in our community who are struggling, an update to the Orange Dot Project report first issued in September 2011.4

What we have learned since this work began in 2011 is that there are too many struggling families in our community, but not too many to help.

Struggling Families

There are 66,633 families living in the Charlottesville region, defined as the city of Charlottesville and the surrounding counties of Albemarle, Louisa, Nelson, Buckingham, Greene, and Fluvanna.5

Of these, 9,413 families (14%) do not make enough money to afford the essentials of life—food, shelter, clothing and utilities—and the added costs associated with working (childcare and transportation).6

While this is still too many families, this is a decrease compared to the numbers provided in the prior report just two years ago. In the Orange Dot Report 4.0, there were 10,940 families (17%) who did not earn enough to meet their basic needs. Since then our community has seen that number reduced by nearly fourteen percent.7

Number of Families Struggling in the Region

Families in our community generally need to earn at least $35,000 annually to meet their basic needs, as detailed in the locality profiles provided in this report. While some of the 9,413 families struggling in our community appear to have limited earning capacity (those with incomes under $14,999), most are working and earning income ($15,000-$34,999), just not enough to support their families.

Breakdown of Families Making under $35,000

This highlights an important distinction. There are at least two categories of struggling families—those who are closer to self-sufficiency and who can more readily earn more with the right opportunities, and those whose earning potential is more limited—and different strategies are required to improve the lives of families within each.

For most families, low-incomeness is not a constant, not an immutable condition that must be worked around, but a variable that must be changed. For a family experiencing economic struggle, the first question should be: What do they need to increase their income?

Some families are on fixed incomes or have otherwise reached a more constrained earning potential due to illness, caregiving responsibilities, and other circumstances. These families are unlikely to see their incomes increase appreciably and require sustained subsidy to meet their basic needs of food, shelter, clothing and utilities. Based on the income data above, which shows 3,057 families make less than $15,000 annually (28%), as well as data from Charlottesville’s housing affordability study,8 for roughly one-third of the families who are struggling, a self-sufficient family income will be out of reach. Their survival depends on the strength of the social safety net.

The vast majority of families, however, have the capacity to earn a family-sufficient income. They are working, but their labor is not sufficiently valued.

The undervaluing of labor has far-reaching consequences. The myth of American meritocracy promotes the idea that those who work hard and play by the rules will get ahead. The flipside of that myth—if you haven’t gotten ahead, it must be because you don’t work hard enough or play by the rules—leads to negative beliefs about the poor in our society and, subsequently, to reduced support for resources and programs meant to reduce the burdens of poverty. Working hard, however, does not guarantee that individuals will get ahead. Take the formulas below:

Hard Work × High Wages = High Income
Hard Work × Low Wages = Low Income

The difference between these outcomes is not the hard work individuals put in, but the wages paid out. A full-time worker making Virginia’s minimum wage will have a gross income of $22,000 per year.9 To reduce the number of struggling families, therefore, requires an increase in their wages. We need a system that identifies the 72% of low-income families who are working for a living but who are not valued, and help them increase their value in the eyes of their employers.

Two pie charts showing percents of families in the Charlottesville Region paid a living wage. The first shows 86% of families are paid a living wage and 14% are not paid a living wage. The second shows that of that 14% not paid a living wage, 73% are paid close to a living wage and 27% are not paid close to a living wage.

To get ahead, those workers will need jobs and careers that pay enough to support their families.

We all benefit when the families in our community have access to jobs that pay sufficient incomes. Among the many advantages include:

Children do better. Graduating from college continues to be the fastest route to economic security, yet economic insecurity limits access to higher education. As Robert Putnam’s work shows, “a family’s socioeconomic status [has] become even more important than test scores in predicting which eighth graders would graduate from college. High-scoring poor kids are now slightly less likely (29%) to get a college degree than low-scoring rich kids (30%).”10

Local businesses benefit. Employees are also consumers, and increased income among a region’s workers means more spending power, which is better for the economy, especially the local economy.

Taxpayers benefit. Given the chance, families want to provide for themselves. When they are able to do so, they require less support from others.

People live longer. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the biggest contributor to poor health is low socio-economic status. The Health Inequality Project estimates that a woman in the Charlottesville area in the lowest income quartile has a life expectancy of seven years less than a woman from the highest income quartile; among men in our region, the life expectancy gap is nearly ten years.11

The community thrives. A community thrives when its residents thrive. Residents thrive when their capacity as human beings is unleashed. And their capacity as human beings can only be unleashed when their basic needs are met.

The Intersection with Race

Too many families are struggling in our region, but these burdens are not equally shared. Throughout our country and our history, the labor of our Black neighbors has been systematically valued less than the labor of our White neighbors. The undervaluing of Black labor has been reinforced through many policies from those we’ve collectively recognized as racially discriminatory—enslavement, Black codes, Jim Crow, Massive Resistance—to ongoing and often unacknowledged choices—a legacy of disinvestment in and displacement of Black communities, the blocking of wealth creation through red-lining and predatory lending, disproportionate contact with law enforcement and overincarceration, disenfranchisement and political demobilization, overt and subconscious negative stereotypes. And the list could go on.

These policies and choices have generated a significant racial wealth gap. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis calculated that the average net worth of a white family in America was ten times greater than the net worth of a Black family, as shown below.12

Distribution of family wealth by race and ethinicity. Wealth gaps in terms of Black and Hispanic families' cents per every dollar of white family wealth shown for percentile groups. Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

That racial wealth gap is best explained by unequal labor income, according to research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.13

Figure showing percent of racial wealth gap from 1962 to 2007. Title: A racial income gap explains the US's wealth gap today. Subtitle: Federal Reserve Bank economists found unequal incomes explain the black-white wealth gap's persistence today more than inherited wealth or investment returns. Source: Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland research economists Dionissi Aliprantic and Daniel Carroll.

This struggle is not new. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963 to deliver his iconic I Have A Dream speech, he was addressing a “March for Jobs and Freedom.” When he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968, he was in Memphis to stand shoulder to shoulder with Black sanitation workers fighting for higher wages.

This struggle is also local, as was made stark in the violence and terror of August 11 and 12, 2017. And the unequal labor income within the nation is reflected in our community as well. As shown below, the percent of Black families making less than family-sustaining income is consistently higher across our region than the percent of white families struggling, and is especially high in Albemarle and Charlottesville.14

Families Making under $35,000 by Race