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D.C. Slow To Reduce Its Ranks Of Jobless

Boom Eludes Many Poor Neighborhoods

By Neil Irwin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 16, 2004; Page A01

In the neighborhood surrounding Camp Simms in Southeast Washington on a summer morning, tidy yards separate low apartment buildings, kids run around and old men sit on deck chairs watching them.

Eight miles up the road near Cheverly, in Prince George's County, is a neighborhood with the same neat apartment buildings, the same enthusiastic kids, and according to the U.S. Census, similar demographics.

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But there is one big difference. In the Prince George's County neighborhood, 5.7 percent of the workforce was unemployed, according to the 2000 Census. In the D.C. neighborhood, unemployment was 23.1 percent.

The District is in an economic boom. It has added almost 50,000 jobs since 2000, more than making up for the jobs it lost in the 1990s. More than $6 billion worth of real estate development has occurred in the past four years. The District's treasury is, by 1990s standards at least, on firm ground.

But 7.1 percent of District residents who wanted a job in June could not find one, about the same as five years ago. That is higher than the nation as a whole and stands in even sharper contrast to nearby suburbs; only 2 percent of Arlington residents were unemployed in June.

"To be honest, the success you would anticipate with a construction crane on every street corner is eluding us," said Gregory P. Irish, director of the D.C. Department of Employment Services. "The District is creating jobs, but it's not benefiting folks who are in the impoverished communities in the city."

Charles W. McMillion, president of economic consulting firm MBG Information Services in the District, said: "There are these hard-core pockets of unemployment in neighborhoods that are still struggling. The boom that has occurred downtown just hasn't spread throughout the District in the way we would all like it to."

Some neighborhoods, mostly in Northeast and Southeast, have struggled with double-digit unemployment for decades despite government and private programs that have tried to help residents get jobs.

The problem in the District has proven particularly intractable, say economists and people who work with the unemployed, because the hurdles that Washington's jobless face defy mere economics. Those problems include weak schools and the lack of role models with careers. Residents who do find steady work often move to the suburbs or other parts of the District.

"Getting a job is really scary when it's not something you've done before," said Lacey Shaw, 23, who lives on Mississippi Avenue SE near Camp Simms. Her efforts to get and keep a job this summer illustrate the problems residents of these neighborhoods face.


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