In D.C., More Jobs and More Jobless

Herbert Martin drops off his children -- De'Qaun, 11, Stephon, 9, and Ta'Von, 9 (not pictured) -- at his mother-in-law's after taking them to a D.C. job center.
Herbert Martin drops off his children -- De'Qaun, 11, Stephon, 9, and Ta'Von, 9 (not pictured) -- at his mother-in-law's after taking them to a D.C. job center. (Photos By Marcus Yam -- The Washington Post)
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By V. Dion Haynes and Emma L. Carew
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 20, 2009

The District's unemployment rate surpassed 10 percent last month, the highest level since September 1983, even though the city is among the few in the country where jobs are being created.

Unemployment also rose in Maryland and Virginia, though not as much as in the District, whose jobless rate went from 9.9 percent in April to 10.7 percent in May. D.C. rate surpasses the national average, 9.4 percent, and is in the company of other urban areas such as Los Angeles (11.6 percent), Chicago (10.5 percent) and Miami (9.8 percent).

Although the Washington area is widely considered relatively immune to fluctuations in the job market because of steady federal government employment, much of that benefit is felt in the two neighboring states, which both had 6.8 percent unemployment in April, rising in May to 7.2 percent in Maryland and 7.1 percent in Virginia.

D.C. "is a city like many central cities with a substantial low-income population with low skills," said Alice Rivlin, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who served as chairman of the District's financial control board when the city was going through a financial crisis in the 1990s. "We have plenty of jobs, but mostly high-skill jobs that require education beyond high school."

City residents often are unable to compete for the best jobs and are more likely to be in the lower-skill positions in construction and retail that have been most vulnerable to cutbacks. The higher-paid, higher-skill jobs being created in the federal government and contracting firms more often go to people residing outside the city. About two-thirds of people working in the District live in Maryland or Virginia, D.C. officials said.

Job losses have occurred across the board in white- and blue-collar professions, but they have disproportionately affected African Americans rather than whites, and holders of only high school diplomas more so than college graduates.

For instance, the U.S. unemployment rate among blacks is 14.9 percent, compared with 8.6 percent for whites. Those who have not graduated from high school have a 15 percent unemployment rate, compared with 4.8 percent for college graduates.

In the District, the gap can be seen ward by ward. In April, in the largely affluent and white Ward 3, the unemployment rate was 2.5 percent, according to the Brookings Institution. In the predominately poor and black Ward 8, the rate was 23.3 percent.

Lee Peterson, 53, of Anacostia, in Southeast D.C., said he has been looking for work since he lost his food-service job six months ago. Peterson, who has a high school diploma, said he often finds that he's not qualified for many of the jobs he seeks.

"I feel disappointed," he said, "because I want to be able to get hired." Peterson said he has been taking classes at night to brush up his skills and has two interviews lined up for next week. "It makes me feel more confident that I might get hired," he said.

In May, the District gained about 1,400 jobs, mainly in the federal government.

"I do see a desire of some employers who'd like to see people from the District get jobs for their District locations," said Paul Villella, chief executive of the Reston-based recruiting firm HireStrategy, who often gets requests from D.C.-based accounting and information technology firms to find local residents.

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