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

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2010; A01

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.

She has brought her own lunch, a turkey leg, collard greens and a plastic cup of mandarin oranges. Don't get her started on Inova's policy of charging low-paid workers to eat the food they cook -- it sets off the irritation often simmering below her cheerful demeanor. "That's crazy," she says. Eight hours after arriving, Walker checks out, offering a ride back to the city to another temp, Donald Alford.

"I try not to think too much about the fact I'm driving into Virginia for a job when I live in Southeast," she says. "It's probably not the most economical," she admits, but "what ya' going to do when you need a job and this is it?"

Alford, who makes $12 an hour, left Petworth at 4:30 a.m., catching the 62 bus to 15th and K streets NW, the Orange Line to Ballston and the 1A to Vienna. Arrival time, 6:35 a.m.;cost, $8.

Alford says he likes the job -- a manager had complimented the way he persuaded customers to add chili to their french fries or cheese to the burgers. Still, he dreams of opening his own lingerie store. He'll call it Fluffy Delight.

Walker laughs. Her own dream is to reopen the restaurant her father had at 12th and H streets NE. She'd make soul food healthy.

Until then, she tells Alford, "I'm going to work my [rear] off so I make it."

Depression-era levels

Alice M. Rivlin, who directs the Greater Washington Research project at the Brookings Institution, told a conference last year that with Great Depression levels of unemployment in Ward 8, the recession was deepening the chasm with the growing western side of Washington.

"I don't think anybody knows when Ward 8 will recover," Rivlin said in an interview. "It will take a combination of a general, regional economic recovery and the success of some of the efforts in Ward 8 to do things like improve schools, get more services and retail in there so that those things create jobs. There has been progress, but it got derailed by the recession."

A 2007 Brookings Institution study found that upward of 61,000 low-income working adults -- half living east of the Anacostia -- needed more workforce training, at an estimated cost of nearly $90 million.

"People see that figure and they say, 'Forget it,' " said Marina Streznewski, who runs the D.C. Jobs Council, a coalition of nonprofit groups that helps low income residents find training and work. "You can't take all that on easily."

Since the recession began, the number of underemployed has steadily increased in the District to 11,700 in the first quarter this year from 6,900 in the first quarter of 2008; across the United States, those numbers climbed to 9.3 million from about 5.2 million.

The city's employment services agency has put $27 million of its more than $120 million annual budget into at least a dozen job training programs. But Valarie Ashley, executive director of the Southeast Ministry program that runs the Anacostia Mentoring and Employment Network, sees a need for still more, especially programs that nurture the attitudes needed to keep jobs once they are found.

"People come from backgrounds of having no role models of how to work or how to cope with the stresses of a workplace," Ashley said. "If you're not raised in an environment where you see people get up and go to work you don't know. You don't hear family members come home and complain about a boss or co-worker to each other and then let it go and not bring it up at the job site."

Started work at 14

The drugs, the record, the child-care problems, the anger at indifferent bosses. Angie Walker has experienced it all.

Walker, the middle child in a family of nine, started working at age 14 after school for her father, a Lorton corrections officer who ran his own businesses at night -- a TV repair shop, a video arcade and later the restaurant. Her mother ran the household.

In 1981, she graduated from Eastern High School and three years later had her first of four children. She landed two federal government office jobs but when a relative fell sick and couldn't watch her kids, she quit. By the early 1990s, Walker got caught up in the District's crack epidemic and spent nearly a decade as an addict. When she couldn't get her hands on cash, she traded dinners of fried chicken and collard greens.

"I got tired of that life," she said, and when her father died in 1999, she quit drugs. "I got tired of being tired."

In 2000, she entered a one-year culinary program at Stratford University in Fairfax -- and still owes $4,000 in loans. After graduating, she got hired by a Silver Spring temp agency. Her high energy, bright smile and cooking skills eventually turned her temp spots into full-time gigs that often lasted a year, cooking in the kitchens of a Marriott hotel, a nursing home and a hospital.

But as the economy slowed so did her hours. She'd get 16 hours one week, none the next. She badly wanted to get in as a cook with D.C. public schools but no luck -- thousands have applied in the past few months.

In late April, she gets a promising tip. A new soul food restaurant needs a cook. So after finishing at Inova, Walker weaves her way through traffic and pulls up to the front of Mac A'licious at Fifth and Kennedy streets NW.

She's cooked fried chicken, fish and sweet potato pies for years. But on this warm, spring afternoon, with so much at stake, she feels only worry. Can she cook well enough? Will the owner ask the dreaded question: Have you ever been convicted of a crime?

In the early 1990s, high on crack, she'd broken her sister's car window and shoplifted lingerie from Tysons Corner. In 2006 she was found guilty of a simple assault charge for getting into a fight at a laundromat.

Inside the restaurant, Philip Johnson shows her to a blue countertop laden with red peppers, onions, garlic and spices. He orders up fried chicken, fish, green beans and a Caesar salad, and sets a timer.

Walker washes her hands, turns on the stove, pours canola oil and lightly coats the chicken and fish in breadcrumbs, arraying them in turquoise frying pans. She seasons the green beans and mixes a salad with a few tomatoes and croutons. Twenty minutes later, Johnson and his two partners huddle at a corner table, tasting and nodding.

"You'd definitely be one of my top candidates," Johnson says.

Bring proof of your TB test, your food service license and your police record.

"This always happens," she says, getting into her car. "I do well in front of nice, decent people, then they look at whether I've got a record, and then I'm left wondering if that nips a job right in the bud."

$12 an hour, for a time

To her amazement, Walker gets the job: $12 an hour and one week of vacation.

"Everybody deserves a chance," Johnson says later. "You can see it in someone's eyes when they want a job and need a job. And that was her."

The first two weeks, Walker worked 70 hours. Then the hours dropped off, and she began to get critical about how the restaurant was run.

"I was trying to bite my tongue because I know I need the money," she said. "But he's been sending us home because he's not getting any business. That was turning me off. I was looking forward to $12 an hour for 40 hours a week. I thought everything was going to fall in place."

One Tuesday, she showed up unscheduled, scrambled some eggs for a customer and walked out, mad that Johnson had offered her only $2 in gas money for a grocery store errand.

"Tell Mr. Johnson I'll come back on Thursday to get my check," she said.

On Wednesday, she worked at Inova, paid her rent, permed her hair and contemplated her future. Maybe she could take a bartending class, if only she had $500 to register. "I'm about to snap," she said. "Even trying doesn't make it."

On Thursday, she was at Sibley Memorial Hospital -- a friend said they were hiring cooks -- filling out an online application. Then it was on to a Silver Spring restaurant. She told the chef about working in her father's restaurant, and about a Red Lobster job -- it ended after a falling out with a boss. She didn't know then, but the next day she would lose the Inova job.

"So they hired me," Walker said later as she was driving her 22-year-old daughter, Whitney, home. Walker was disappointed in the Silver Spring job, it was nights and weekends, running the deep fryer at $11 an hour, but it was a foot in the door.

"Oh, they did?" Whitney said. "You going to keep it this time?"

Walker gave her a slight glare and kept driving.

"What you mean by that? It is not me, I'm telling you it's been the jobs."

Her daughter nodded and looked out the window.

Staff researcher Meg Smith and staff writer V. Dion Haynes contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company