The juxtaposition of the average Arlington County wage with the percentage of public school children who receive free or reduced lunch helps paint a picture of Two Arlingtons.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Arlington County’s average salary per job in 2010 was $107,476 -- the third highest in the country, behind New York and Santa Clara, Calif. -- and its median home cost was $514,700.
But despite being one of the wealthiest counties in America, this county still has almost 32 percent of its children in the public school system on free or reduced lunches.
A student is eligible for free or reduced meals if he or she comes from a household income at or below federal guidelines. A household of four is eligible if their annual income is $41,348 or less, and a household of two is eligible if their annual income is $34,281 or less. A family is also eligible for free meals if they receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which is formerly the Food Stamp Program, or if they receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF.
Amy Maclosky, director of food and nutrition services at Arlington Public Schools, said that a child must reside in Arlington County to attend one of its public schools.
Student breakfast in Arlington Public Schools cost $1.35, and lunch costs $2.55 at elementary schools and $2.65 at secondary schools. If a student qualifies for reduced meals, their breakfast would then be free; their lunch, 40 cents.
Last year, about 32 percent of all Arlington Public Schools students were on free or reduced lunches. Schools with the highest percentage of their student population in the program were Carlin Springs Elementary School (nearly 82 percent) and Randolph Elementary School (about 74 percent).
It begs the question: How can so many families be struggling financially in what's generally known as one of the wealthiest counties in the United States?
Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman said the average salary per job is “just an average” and that realistically the income level is very skewed.
Half of residents here make more than the average and half make much less. "No one is ever really the average," Zimmerman said. "The income level in Arlington is more skewed than ever."
To manage this uneven distribution, Zimmerman said county officials are passionate about maintaining affordable housing for residents. Over the past decade, the county has increased its affordable housing units by roughly 400 units each year.
The Arlington County Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development lists 66 properties -- more than 6,000 units -- as "affordable." That's about 14 percent of the county's rental stock.
"We are committed to affordability," Zimmerman said. "Every resident plays an important role. We need people at every income level to keep our county strong."
Although Arlington County does not have public housing, there are privately owned apartment complexes where rents are subsidized. Usually these complexes are near a Metro station. To be eligible for affordable housing, a resident must make 60 percent or less of the area’s immediate income.
When a new developer wants to build a unit building near a Metro station, Zimmerman said the county will usually negotiate with that developer to either incorporate affordable units in or near the building or pay a contribution to the county's affordable housing fund.
Having affordable housing in the county gives individuals and families the chance to live near their work and have less transportation costs to bear. Also, it allows their children to attend Arlington Public Schools.
“Arlington County always strives to maintain this diversity of income levels,” Zimmerman said. “It’s one of the reasons why we are such a unique and special place.”