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Washington area sees best and worst of recession

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 15, 2010

Walking around the District, Abel Lomax can't help but look around and think: What recession?

After a stint abroad, it took the 27-year-old just four months to find a job with the government -- not bad for the Great Recession. And the neighborhoods where he spends his time sport new restaurants crowded with patrons enjoying Czech Pilseners and Wagyu beef brisket.

"I don't know if it's because I'm primarily in Northwest, but it really doesn't feel all that bad," Lomax said.

The view from Rhonda Sledge's perch in Southeast Washington, however, could not be more different. Work has dried up for the 44-year-old construction worker, coming in unpredictable bursts that have kept her from making ends meet.

"They told me in 2010 everything would change," Sledge said. "Here it is in February, and nothing has changed."

With thousands of new federal and government-related jobs, Washington has benefited from some of the circumstances that have caused Main Streets to go dark elsewhere. The government has taken a greater oversight role on the financial sector, and companies have been drawn to the area because of its economic stability.

But in ways less visible to those in the region's government-dominated cocoon, things are as bad as in the rest of the country. About 42,000 local jobs were lost over the past year, most of them in less-affluent areas and among lower-paying positions in retail and construction.

The pattern has created a system of winners and losers, and a widening of the already broad chasm between rich and poor, said Stephen S. Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University.

The contradictory perceptions of residents such as Lomax and Sledge reflect job gains and losses in the past year. From November 2008 through November 2009, about 27,000 jobs were created in the Washington area, among them positions for lawyers, lobbyists, accountants, federal workers, educators, health professionals and government workers, according to an analysis by Fuller.

Of the 42,000 jobs lost, about 16,000 were in construction, 9,000 in retail and about 11,000 in financial and information fields that had been in decline since before the recession.

The losses contributed to the news last month that unemployment shot up to 12 percent in the District -- nearly double the rate in Virginia, more than 4 percentage points higher than in Maryland and above the national average of 10 percent at the time. It renewed criticism by city leaders who have long complained that government jobs too often go to residents of neighboring jurisdictions.

Advocates say there could be a long-term impact for the District and the entire region, creating a permanent gap in the kinds of jobs that have historically provided less-educated workers a chance to move up the social ladder.

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