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 2017-21, 9% of Essex County residents had incomes at or below the poverty level, similar to the state rate and less than the national level of 13%. 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 higher. Countywide, 16% of African Americans and 20% of Hispanics were living in poverty, compared to 7% of Asians and 8% of whites.
Median household incomes are far higher for Asians and whites (in the $93,000-$121,000 range) than for African Americans and Hispanics ($52,000-$63,000). Single-parent households are particularly disadvantaged, with a median income for female-headed households with children of just $36,700 in 2017-21.
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 $120,800 in Essex County – far above the actual median income for either female- or male-headed households (which is $36,700 and $53,300 respectively).
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 $133,300 annually, or nearly five times the poverty level, which is $27,479 for such a family. In Essex County, 65% of residents have incomes that are triple the poverty level, and 25% 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 increases in the share of households receiving federal food assistance (SNAP). In 2017-21, 15% of households received SNAP benefits, with higher levels in Lawrence (40%) and Lynn (26%). About 4.3% of Essex County households in 2017-21 received TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), an increase from 2000 and higher than the state and nation.
About 11% 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 2023, 47% of Essex County students were economically disadvantaged, up from 28% in 2015. Here too, Essex County was above the state rate (42%).
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 38% since 2000, and at $462,900, the median home value in the county in 2017-21 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 38% of their household income on rent in 2017-21, higher than the state level (34%) and renters nationwide (31%).
Homelessness is a growing issue in Essex County, with 11 homeless persons per 10,000 residents in 2020. The rate also increased in Massachusetts over this time span from 24 to 26. Nationwide, homelessness has decreased from 21 to 18 per 10,000 residents over the same period of time.
The homeownership rate in Essex County has remained steady since 2000. In 2017-21, 64% of all homes were owner-occupied, the same rate as 2000. Despite this consistency, homeownership rates vary greatly among local areas. Only 29% of homes in Lawrence were owner-occupied in 2017-21, along with 48% in Lynn and 52% in Salem. By contrast, the homeownership rates in Boxford, Groveland, and West Newbury were over 90%. Essex County has greater racial and ethnic disparities in homeownership than the nation. In 2017-21, 70% of white and Asian residents owned their home, compared to 38% of African Americans and 31% of Hispanics. Nationwide, homeownership was higher among African American and Hispanic residents at 43% and 49% respectively.