In the wake of a brutal Democratic primary for Mayor of Washington, D.C. defined by fault lines along race and class, the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute recently released a sobering analysis of the recession’s impact on African Americans in the nation’s capital. It paints a depressing portrait of a city not only hit hard by economic downturn, but rapidly becoming a place of two cities: one very poor and Black and the other very affluent and White.
The unemployment rate in the city jumped dramatically, doubling from 5.6% in 2008 to 12% in 2010 – from 19,000 to 40,000. That’s the highest on record since 1976, somewhat contradicting conventional claims that the District is typically insulated from economic downturns.
For African Americans, the jumps in unemployment were most pronounced: from 10.4% in 2008 to 15.6% in 2010. And while the employment rate for Blacks in D.C. was 62% in 1988 it dropped precipitously to only 49.5% in 2009. Hence, the official unemployment numbers for Blacks in the city could actually be understating the problem.
While Blacks maintained the highest unemployment rate in the city, Latino workers experienced the highest jump, from 4.7% to 8.4 percent. But, for White residents, unemployment barely moved from 3 percent to 4.1%.
“DC’s high unemployment became a key issue in this year’s mayoral campaign,” writes Institute Director Ed Lazare in a recent blog. “Gray frequently cited Ward 8’s 28 percent unemployment rate — and he called DC resident’s lack of jobs ‘a ticking time bomb.’ It appears that he has staked his reputation in large part on his ability to turn the unemployment numbers around.”
In an interesting twist, the study found that D.C. residents with a high school education were almost more likely as those without a high school education to be unemployed, 19% to 20.3% unemployment. Unemployment was at 4.2% for those with a college degree.
“How do you put a string back in a sweater? It’s that bad,” says longtime local political observer and native Washingtonian Veronica McDonald in comments to Politic365.com. “If you think about it, people who have been in DC public schools for the last 20 years have not been getting the best education. And that’s a big factor.”
McDonald, however, feels that major regional inequities in education are exacerbating the problem. “Everybody talks about the gap,” says McDonald. “We all know about the gap. But what would happen if we paid the same for all teachers across the board, in DC, Maryland and Virginia,” referring to the entire Washington metropolitan area. “Let’s say we paid D.C. teachers the same, trained them the same as teachers in affluent Montgomery County, MD or Fairfax County, VA. And we manage to spread it out equally. For, at least, five years. It would, at least, be an interesting study or exercise.”