By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 14, 2008
Nearly one in three working families in the District is poor, according to a report slated for release today that blasts the D.C. government for failing to steer more of the benefits of the recent economic boom to residents.
The study assails the city's economic-development policies for paying too little attention to low-income residents. It also charges that the D.C. government's job-training programs are inadequate and poorly monitored.
"The common perception is that people who are low-income . . . are not working, or not working enough. They are working. They're just not earning enough," said Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, a liberal think tank. The group co-authored the study with the D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, an independent advocacy organization.
The report calls for more educational opportunities for adult workers, particularly the development of a full-fledged community-college system in the District. It also urges city officials to work with employers to tailor job training to the needs of upcoming business ventures.
Neil O. Albert, the deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said in a statement: "We think it is absolutely critical that we make sure real economic opportunities are spread to all residents in the District."
He pointed to one recent success: the opening of the DC USA retail complex in Columbia Heights, which he said created more than 1,200 jobs, most going to D.C. residents.
The report, "Hometown Prosperity: Increasing Opportunities for D.C.'s Low-Income Working Families," highlights the city's uneven progress as construction has boomed and neighborhoods have been revitalized.
Between 1998 and 2006, there was a 10 percent increase in the number of jobs in the District, the report says. But the employment rate among D.C. adults with only a high-school degree dropped, from 61 percent in 1999 to 51 percent in 2006.
"We've got this huge irony of a city in the throes of enormous economic development . . . but the job growth is not going to District residents," said Walter Smith, Appleseed's executive director.
The report focuses on the poor families in the District with a full-time worker -- about half of all low-income families. It defines the working poor as those earning twice the federal poverty level, or about $31,000 for a family of three. About one-third of working D.C. families were poor in 2005, compared with 17 percent in Maryland and 21 percent in Virginia, according to the report, which is based on census figures. (The 2006 figure is about the same but was released too late to include, Lazere said.)
Nearly all poor D.C. working families (96 percent) are minorities. About two-thirds are headed by single women with no education beyond high school, the report says. Nearly one in five poor families has a parent with limited English.
The District's economic-development programs have not succeeded in creating good jobs for low-income residents, the report says. For example, under a program known as First Source, the city requires that new projects involving District land or subsidies fill at least 51 percent of their jobs with D.C. residents. Businesses that report they can't find qualified D.C. residents can hire outside workers. The program has failed, the report says, because "it does nothing to address the preparedness of District residents for the jobs that are being created."
For example, in 2004, no more than 30 percent of the jobs covered by First Source agreements went to D.C. residents, the report says. Less than one-third of the jobs at some economic-development projects, such as the Mandarin Oriental hotel and the Gallery Place retail complex, went to city dwellers.
The report calls for the creation of a community-college system with affordable tuition, the evaluation and improvement of training programs and the dedication of money toward literacy efforts to aid residents. It says the city should support partnerships between employers, government, trading providers and unions to funnel D.C. residents into jobs.
It also suggests improving employment conditions for the working poor, through such efforts as tax relief and a minimum wage that keeps up with inflation.
Smith said he thinks the business community would support the report, noting it was compiled by a team including a D.C. Chamber of Commerce representative, Margaret Singleton.
Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), chairman of the D.C. Council's Economic Development Committee, said the report "will bring to light something I've been fighting for for a long time. We have a job-training problem in the District of Columbia."
The council recently passed legislation that he sponsored to increase auditing of the job-creation results at city-supported projects. He said he is also pushing for a 24-hour adult vocational facility.
Smith, of Appleseed, acknowledged it would be difficult for the city to take on costly new projects at a time of fiscal austerity, but he said the efforts would be of great benefit.
"It will help build the city's tax base," he said. "It will help reduce the very high costs we have in this city of social services. It's very much in the city's interest to invest in these families."