Genetic Code or Zip Code?

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” These words, spoken by Franklin Delano Roosevelt more than 75 years ago, ring true today. The question must be, why have we not heeded those words?

A recent report by U.S. News and World Report titled “The 10 Healthiest Communities in America” studied the impact of an individual’s geographic location as a major factor in their overall health and life expectancy. A large percentage of locales at the top of the list of healthy communities are in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, particularly Northern Virginia. Falls Church City was noted as the “healthiest city in America.”

What is it about certain areas in Northern Virginia that places them in the pantheon of healthy places to live? Let’s start with some basic and seemingly obvious variables. Northern Virginia is home to median family incomes in most local jurisdictions in excess of $100,000. Many parts of it are racially homogeneous (Falls Church is 72% non-Hispanic White). Historically, many of these areas have had restrictive municipal zoning laws and land-use policies in place for generations that have excluded all but the wealthiest among us. These jurisdictions also possess exceptionally high access to health care, excellent public and private education, availability of quality food stores, and places to exercise without fear of physical harm. Those are just a few in the obvious first line of defense.

Beyond these lie factors such as average level of education (the Washington area has rates of college completion more than twice the national average), excellent public schools, lower life stress factors, quality and availability of housing, safety of neighborhoods, historically low unemployment levels, family stability, low crime rates, and other variables that impact one’s health in the short and long term. The Northern Virginia area ranks very high in all of these areas.

To bolster that assertion, here are some astonishing statistics. According to a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
1. The average life expectancy in the District of Columbia is 77 years; the average life expectancy in Fairfax County, Virginia is 84.
2. Nearby Montgomery County, Maryland has an average life expectancy of 84 years, while less prosperous neighboring Prince Georges County logs in at 78 years.
3. If one looks beyond our region, the difference is nearly 20 years in parts of West Virginia and other less affluent areas throughout the nation.

There seems to be a strong correlation here between geography, race, income, access to health care, the quality of neighborhood schools, crime, access to healthy food choices, and other factors that impact one’s quality of life and one’s life expectancy. These social and economic determinants of health are critical factors if we want to address life expectancy disparities, income inequality, education inequality, health-care inequality, and other manifestations of social and economic inequality in America. As we know, these are all issues that have divided the nation in recent years. Franklin Roosevelt would be appalled at the lack of progress we have made as a nation in these areas.

Some additional national and local statistics:
1. The 2017 federal poverty level for a family of four was defined as a family income of less than $24,600 per year.
2. The Fairfax County Community Action Advisory Board reports that a family of four living in the County needs an income of $74,082 just to meet basic expenses such as housing, food, and health care.
3. The average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Fairfax County is $1,551.
4. Eight percent (99,000) of Fairfax County residents had no health insurance in 2016.
5. Nearly 28% of Fairfax County students meet the poverty criteria for federally supported free or reduced lunch in 2016-2017.

So, it seems that one’s location plays a major role in the life expectancy and economic security of the residents of areas here in Northern Virginia and throughout the nation. In other words, it is not your genetic code that may determine your life expectancy. It may be your zip code. There were no zip codes during Roosevelt’s terms in office, but he knew that it did not take zip codes to create an unequal America.

Many public policy options are on the table that will help to move those in impoverished environments into more prosperous, healthier environments – affordable housing, access to health-care, neighborhoods free of crime, excellent public schools, availability of safe outdoor recreational space, creation of a sense of neighborhood that nurtures cohesion, access to arts and cultural events, availability of and accessibility to community events and, of course, taking proactive measures to close the widening income and social class divide in America. Roosevelt knew this well and, as we now know, he did all he could to enact measures to address these issues through his “New Deal.” The challenge for today’s leaders is to muster the political will to reverse this trend. Few, if any, seem to be up to the challenge.

The message is clear. If we want to begin the long, difficult process of closing the gap between rich and poor in America, this must begin by enacting public policies that promote a healthy, safe living environment. Localities like Fairfax County and Falls Church City need to enact public policies that address this issue – zoning and land use, affordable housing, childcare, etc. Absent that, children raised in impoverished environments inevitably develop life-long habits that lead to physical, economic, and sociological decay – hence, a shorter life expectancy, and worse. In this environment, the income inequality that has gripped the nation during the past several decades will only worsen.

How does this relate to Northern Virginia as one of the healthiest places in America with the highest life expectancy? We can revel in our wealth and prosperity and be proud of it. The residents of Northern Virginia have been afforded tremendous opportunities unknown to millions of Americans. We must resist the temptation to gloat and be smug about it.

Falls Church City, as noted earlier, was named America’s healthiest community in the aforementioned U.S. News and World Report study. Bravo for Falls Church City. Falls Church City also has maintained a single-family home zoning policy that has systematically excluded low-income families for generations. It is only in recent years that the city has begun to address the issue of “affordable housing.” This has also kept it predominantly White with little racial and ethnic diversity. Today, the city is 72% non-Hispanic White with an African American population of 5% and a Hispanic population of 10%. It seems that America’s changing demographics have not yet affected the City of Falls Church.

This certainly has helped the City of Falls Church nurture what has been termed the best public high school in the nation (98% graduation rate) in recent surveys. It has also helped the City of Falls Church attract a large percentage of high-income earners, thereby enhancing their tax capacity and tax effort. This has resulted in excellent recreational facilities and many other amenities that promote good health and long life expectancy. In other words, it is not difficult to be healthy, prosperous, productive, and live a long life when the deck is stacked in your favor.

“The Little City” can boast of fine public schools, an abundant number of food stores, a world-class farmer’s market, abundant health care options including numerous primary care physicians, a population where fully a quarter of its households earn $200,000 or more annually (nearly 10 times the national poverty rate for a family of four), a median household income of $115,000, a poverty rate of 2.7%, where 80.2% of its adult residents hold at least a bachelor’s degree, safe parks and recreation facilities…the list goes on. In this context, the level of discretionary time and income devoted to healthy living is enormous.

My point here is not to say that healthy living, access to the best life can offer, and long life expectancy should be denigrated. For those among us who have attained what Abraham Maslow termed self-actualization, and who are fortunate enough to have “the best of the best”, we need to recognize that the overwhelming number of Americans cannot relate to the economic “bubble” known as Northern Virginia.

To the City of Falls Church and the rest of Northern Virginia, I have one clear message. Recognize that we all live in an economic, demographic bubble – a bubble that millions of people outside the Beltway cannot even imagine. If we are serious about addressing the issue of income, health, educational inequality and life expectancy disparities in America, we might want to consider starting right here in our own backyard by enacting public policies (zoning and land-use; child-care, and other public policy initiatives) that can be accomplished at the local level) that address these issues and that begin to close the widening chasm between rich and poor in America. In a nation where the 400 wealthiest among us control wealth greater than to poorest 80 million Americans, the consequences of not doing so are dire.

Another visionary from the past, Martin Luther King, stated, “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.” It seems that we have not heeded King’s vision either.

As always, I welcome your civil, educated, thoughts and comments.


About Dr. Ralph G. Perrino

Biography: Doctorate, Education, George Mason University, 1998; Masters Degree, Public Administration, George Mason University, 1980; Graduate study, Sociology, University of North Carolina 1971-74; Bachelor's Degree, Sociology, Catawba College, 1971. Associate Professor, Sociology, Northern Virginia Community College, 1984 - present; Founder and Director, Northern Virginia Tutoring Service, LLC, 1995 - 2018; 35 years teaching, coaching, mentoring, and tutoring experience with elementary through college-age students. Founder and Board President of Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization (1986-1998); Board President, Residential Program Center (1998-2009); Chairman, Greater Falls Church Chamber of Commerce (2009-2011); Vice Chairman, Fairfax Partnership for Youth, 2010 – 2016, Board Member, David M. Brown Planetarium, 2010 – 2018; Advisory Board, David M. Brown Planetarium, 2018; Board Member, Creative Cauldron Theatre Company, 2012 – present; Co-President, Faction of Fools Theater Company, 2016 – present; Board Member, The Hub Theater Company, 2018 - present; Washington Independent Services for Educational Resources (WISER) past president and Board member, 2001 – 2015. Outstanding Citizen Award, Arlington County Public Schools, 1992; Nominated for Outstanding Citizen Award, Arlington County Public Schools, 2005; Arlington School Administrators 2006 Civic Award; Arlington County James B. Hunter Community Hero Award, 2009; Northern Virginia Community College Outstanding Service to the College Award, 2012; Jean C. Netherton Award of Excellence, Northern Virginia Community College. 2016.
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4 Responses to Genetic Code or Zip Code?

  1. Avatar Sam Ulm says:

    This is an excellent look at different demographics in Norhtern Viriginia and parts of the Washington Metropolitan Area, and how this points toward major differences in levels of posperity and ability to enjoy "the good life". Yes, by national standards, most people here tend to earn more and enjoy more of the ":better" offerings in life. Yet, even a cursory look at, for example the percentage of students receiving free or reduced-cost meals at local schools, in , say, Fairfax County or Alexandria,and some other local jurisdictions, show remarkable, even shocking variations. Look further at the student scores on standardized tests and you might even think  you are in different parts of the country and not just different neighborhoods. Many localities work hard and devote extra resources toward narrowing the performance gaps, but the impact of varying socio-economic levels of parents and  varying "cultures" of some schools still point many students toward different levels of achievement and, expectations concenring post-high school education and training, and future "success". Some government programs and funding priorities are making a difference in supporting students who need extra help, but much more is needed to narrow the gap in student expectations and performance. Yes, zip codes do point in a significant way toward differences in student performance, crime, cultural opportunities and political participation.


    • Avatar Anonymous says:


      Thank you for taking the time to read, comment on, and analyze my most recent blog post. Your observations are right on target. The Washington, D.C. area, and particularly Falls Church City and Fairfax County, possess enormous economic advantages unknown to many parts of the nation. And, as you point out, even within these areas, there are pockets of poverty, low achievement, and low expectations. Taking pride in success is one thing. Ignoring those who struggle and whose life chances are dim is quite another. Far too many people in Northern Virginia do not see, nor do they care about the plight of the underprivileged.  The consequences of this have short and long term implications.

  2. Avatar Anwar Y. Dunbar, Ph.D. says:

    Good morning Ralph.  This was a very insightful piece – well written and well reserached.  Being a native of Buffalo, NY, I can say absolutely agree that your zip code matters a whole lot and will dictate which priviliges and luxuries are afforded you.  Growing up Buffalo was much different than the surrounding suburbs of Western New York.  Northern Virginia is definitely a bubble, and it's fascinating how you only have to ride WMATA's Blue, Orange and Silver lines from one end to the other to see the demographics change.  As a sociologist yourself, I think there are pieces that are hard to quantify here.  I always wonder about what the keys are to busting people out of poverty.  You definitely seem to be an advocate of changing some of our public policies.  I'm going to share this in my network.  Thank you again.

    • Avatar RALPH PERRINO says:


      Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my latest posting. I grew up in a blue collar, working class, ethnic part of northern New Jersey where the question when I was in high school was, "If you go to college,” not "When you go to college."

      There is a huge difference in those two statements, and if you grew up wondering if you were going to college or work in the local factory, your deck of cards in life was pretty much already dealt.

      In Northern Virginia, the expectation is that you WILL go to college. If not, your ability to sustain yourself in this area is difficult. That same phenomenon exists nationwide where the ability to prosper and live a long life is statistically less than it is here in Northern Virginia.  We need to wake up to that reality. Absent that, continued inequality in all areas of life – income, life expectancy, education, health) will lead to social discord in the future.

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