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In District's Ward 8, economic recovery is a world away

Just a few miles from downtown D.C. and across the Anacostia River, employment opportunities can be especially difficult for people who lack education and job skills.
By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2010

While much of Washington starts to emerge from more than two years of recession, Angie Walker feels as if she's in the middle of a depression, stuck, without knowing quite how to get out.

Companies are beginning to hire, but Walker, who at 46 is struggling to find a full-time job, hasn't noticed. April found her driving 28 miles round trip from Southeast Washington to Inova Fairfax Hospital, where a temp agency had sent her for a kitchen job, pay $11.88 an hour. She was working about 24 hours a week but needed more.

With a high school degree and years of kitchen experience, Walker can get jobs. But they're almost always part time, low paying and temporary, leaving her among the 8.8 million Americans counted as underemployed.

Walker lives in the District's Ward 8, where she and many of her neighbors lack the beefy résumés with technical skills and college degrees that snag jobs in a slowly recovering economy. Often they're hobbled by poor transportation, lack of reliable day care, brushes with the law, substance abuse and isolation from the world of internships and job referrals -- problems that won't be fixed by classes in résumé writing or 9-to-5 dressing.

"Any chink in the system can make it hard for them to achieve," said Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, which studies issues affecting low-income District residents. "It is a complicated web to fix."

A few miles across the Anacostia River, Congress has spent close to $600 billion on job creation and benefits for the unemployed since the downturn began. But fear of driving up huge deficits has begun to overshadow worry about jobs, and lawmakers are talking about when to trim back.

The change in tone isn't helpful in Ward 8, where unemployment, estimated at 25 percent, approaches 40 percent when counting the underemployed and those who have given up looking. Those numbers can be overwhelming, considering unemployment was 5.9 percent in April in metropolitan Washington and 11 percent in the District.

"You can't fix the whole world overnight," said Joseph Walsh, director of the District's Department of Employment Services. "We're trying every day to help people."

Alarm goes off at 3 a.m.

Angie Walker had been getting steady hospital kitchen work until January, when she was laid off by the temp agency. A month-long, city-run class helped her create a résumé, and Walker returned to the program on a recent afternoon to post it online. Unfamiliar with the computer, she waited for a trainer to help.

"You never know if that's going to work," Walker said. "I barely knew what he was talking about. I'm just trying to get something that I know how to do. And that's cooking. Who knew it would be so hard?"

In mid-March, when the temp agency called her for the Inova Fairfax job, Walker rejoiced, even though it meant setting the alarm for 3 a.m. in the three-bedroom apartment she shares with her 2-year-old grandson and 19-year-old daughter, who is studying criminal justice at the University of the District of Columbia. Three snooze buttons later, at 3:27 a.m., her feet hit the tan wall-to-wall carpet, still bearing vacuum cleaner lines.

The green digital clock hits 4:17 a.m. in her baby blue 2007 Camry as she pulls into the Inova garage. Within minutes she's in the steamy kitchen, unloading waffles from the oven, stacking them in silver trays and loading them on carts. By 6:30 a.m., she's stirred pots of hot Cream of Wheat, cooked dozens of strips of bacon and made half a dozen trips through the hospital's long corridors, pushing carts of food.

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