Tax Burden Targets Low-Income Workers in Northern Virginia

Average tax burden for low-income workers is highest in Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax.

Families that are struggling to make ends meet in Northern Virginia are the target of local governments in Northern Virginia, which has the highest tax burden in the region for low-income workers. Wealthy people face the highest tax burden in Prince George's County and Montgomery County. But here in Virginia, poor people face the biggest tax burden in Arlington, according to a new study by the Office of Revenue Analysis in the District of Columbia. Alexandria ranked second, and Fairfax County ranked third.

"People of color and low-income people are being pushed farther and farther out," said Jon Liss, founder of Tenants and Workers United. "The whole anti-immigrant backlash from 2006 to the present in Prince William was against the influx of people of color, particularly immigrants, being priced out and taxed out of this area and moving down there."

The study included the average tax burdens for five different income levels, starting at a family that earns $25,000 a year and ending with a family that earns $150,000 a year. The families at each income level are assumed to own a single family home, although those in the $25,000 are assumed to live in rental housing and own a vehicle. The combination of income tax, sales tax and automobile tax hit people at the bottom end of the scale hardest

"There is no deliberate policy to impose a disproportionate tax burden on the lowest income residents," said Frank Shafroth, director of the Center of State and Local Leadership at George Mason University. "Rather, it's a lack of state-delegated authority to use other kinds of taxes, which would provide greater options to create a more responsive tax policy in each of these two booming jurisdictions."

ARLINGTON RANKS the highest for families that earn $25,000 — a very low income for families who live inside the Beltway. The median household income in Arlington is about $103,000, which means the study was looking at families who are struggling to make ends meet in a county where most families pull down salaries that are about four times larger. County officials say the tax burden tells only part of the story. Arlington leaders say the county offers a number of significant services to low-income residents, including public education and housing support.

"I believe we are the only Northern Virginia locality still providing housing grants to lower income families and seniors," said Jay Fisette, chairman of the Arlington County Board. "We provide four to five times the level of support to help make housing affordable as do our closest Northern Virginia neighbors."

As people earn more money, the tax burden decreased on Arlington residents. The same is true of people who live in Alexandria, which ranks second overall for people who are at the bottom end of the earnings scale. Alexandria also has the third highest tax burden among families with a $50,000 and $75,000 income level, and the fourth highest tax burden among families with a $100,000 or $150,000 income level. Residents in the District of Columbia have the lowest tax burden in all five of the income brackets.

"Talk to people in D.C., and they wish they had better services — EMS service, for instance, better police response times, more recreation centers," said Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille. "So it's what you invest in and reinvest in in terms of providing outreach and services to your taxpayers."

VIRGINIA HAS a reputation as a low-tax state, so the relatively high tax burden on low-income people is counter-intuitive. For example, the Washington-based Tax Foundation ranks Virginia as the 25th lowest among states levying an individual income tax. When the organization looked at state and local income tax collections, though, it ranked Virginia as the 11th highest nationally.

"We reside in a low-tax state," said Shafroth. "So there is both a greater burden on local governments to raise taxes than in Maryland, but limited state authority on what kinds of taxes may be levied."

Among the Northern Virginia jurisdictions that were part of the D.C. government study on tax burdens, Fairfax County had the lowest tax burden in all income brackets. That means that Arlington and Alexandria impose a greater tax burden on their residents than in Fairfax County. But as families earn more money, the tax burden decreases in Fairfax County.

"Saying that Fairfax has a lower tax burden than Arlington is like saying that Mount McKinley is not as high as Mount Everest," said Arthur Purves, president of the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance. "Fairfax County's tax burden and spending is still way too high."