Despite generally low poverty rates, Essex is an expensive county that requires a level of income that data suggests many residents and families lack.
In 2013-17, 11% of Essex County residents had incomes at or below the poverty level, the same as the state rate and less than the national level of 14%. Median incomes in Essex County were generally 15-30% higher than national levels as well, depending upon the group.
But Essex County has pockets of poverty and stark disparities among racial and ethnic groups. In the cities of Lawrence and Lynn, poverty rates are 24% and 18%. Countywide, 18% of African Americans and 24% of Hispanics were living in poverty, compared to 12% of Asians and 9% of whites.
Median household incomes are far higher for Asians and whites (in the $78,000-$95,000 range) than for African Americans and Hispanics ($41,000-$52,000). Single-parent households are particularly disadvantaged, with a median income for female-headed households with children of just $29,800.
Actual incomes are far below what is needed to make ends meet in Essex County for some residents and families. Living wages for a family of three with a single earner (a working parent and two children) would require an annual income of more than $72,600 in Essex County – far above the actual median income for either female- or male-headed households (which is $40,000).
In addition, the living wage model and income statistics suggest that a broader group of families may find it difficult to get by. A family of four with two earners (two working parents and two children) needs $79,075 annually, or nearly three times the poverty level, which is $24,900 for such a family. In Essex County, 62% of residents have incomes that are triple the poverty level, and 27% have incomes between 100% and 299% of poverty. While these statistics are not an exact match (mixing family and individual metrics), they do suggest that the cost of living in Essex County may push a broader group near the edge of self-sufficiency.
In terms of participation in programs to help needy individuals and families, Essex County has seen the biggest increase in the share of people receiving federal food assistance (SNAP). In 2016, 13% of Essex County residents received SNAP benefits, a dramatic increase from 3% in 2000 and the largest increase among comparison counties, the state and nation. About 3.5% of Essex County households in 2013-17 received TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), largely unchanged from 2000 and higher than the state and nation.
About 14% of residents filed for the Earned Income Tax Credit, which provides tax credits or refunds to working poor. That was a bit higher than the state and lower than the nation, likely reflecting that incomes in Essex County are above national incomes.
In 2018, 34% of Essex County students were economically disadvantaged, up from 28% in 2015. Here too, Essex County was above the state rate (32%).
A lack of financial self-sufficiency shows up in Essex County’s statistics on homeownership and housing affordability.
Home values in Essex County have risen by 23% since 2000, and at $373,000, the median home value in the county in 2013-17 was higher than both the state and the nation. This is good for homeowners, but the rising costs of homeownership can make it difficult for residents to purchase their first home. Housing affordability for homeowners, as determined by the ratio of median home value to median household income, shows that homeownership is becoming increasingly unaffordable in the county, with the value of homes rising faster than household incomes.
The same is true for renters in Essex County, who spent 37% of their household income on rent in 2013-17, similar to the state level, and higher than renters nationwide (32%).
Homelessness is a growing issue in Essex County, with 17 homeless persons per 10,000 residents in 2017. The rate also increased in Massachusetts over this time span from 23 to 26. Nationwide, homelessness has decreased from 22 to 17 per 10,000 residents over the same period of time.
The homeownership rate in Essex County has remained steady since 2000. In 2013-17, 64% of all homes were owner-occupied, the same rate as 2000. Despite this consistency, homeownership rates vary greatly among local areas. Only 28% of homes in Lawrence were owner-occupied in 2013-17, along with 44% in Lynn and 51% in Salem. By contrast, the homeownership rates in Boxford, Topsfield, and West Newbury were over 90%. Essex County has greater racial and ethnic disparities in homeownership than the nation. In 2013-17, 69% of white residents and 65% of Asian residents owned their home, compared to 31% of African Americans and 26% of Hispanics. Nationwide, homeownership was higher among African American and Hispanic residents at 42% and 46% respectively.