Metropolitan Washington's 20 jurisdictions are seeing incremental drops in their jobless rates, according to federal government data released last week. But at the current pace, it will be a long slog until the numbers reach their September 2008 levels when unemployment in the region ranged from 2.9 percent to 7 percent.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics' September data illustrate the difficulty in addressing unemployment, even in a region where jobs are in far greater supply than in other parts of the country. Unemployment rates in the region topped out at a nonseasonally adjusted 9.5 percent in the District, followed by 9.2 percent in Fredericksburg. On the low end were Loudoun County, with 4.5 percent, and Arlington County, with 3.9 percent.
Overall, unemployment rates throughout the region declined by 1.6 points to 2.7 points from September 2008 to September 2010.
"Many regions in the country would be delighted to have experienced the gradual progress in the unemployment rate abatement that has been observed in the Washington metropolitan area," said Anirban Basu, chairman and chief executive of Sage Policy Group, a Baltimore economic and policy consulting firm. "The broader economic recovery remains fragile and tepid with the implication being that job growth is insufficient to generate rapid declines in unemployment."
A separate BLS release last week on unemployment at the state level during October showed a similar trend.
Unemployment remained steady compared with September in Maryland and Virginia but dropped in the District. Maryland's unemployment rate remained at 7.4 percent and Virginia's stayed at 6.8 percent, according to the seasonally adjusted data, in part because of job gains in retail and professional and business services. The District's rate decreased to 9.7 percent from 9.8 percent -- a drop experts attributed in part to a slight uptick in the number of "discouraged" long-term unemployed people abandoning their job search.
"Things are trucking along," said Sara Kline, associate economist at Moody's Analytics. But, she added, "the path to improvement is going to be a lengthy one."
Basu saw a decidedly mixed employment picture in the region next year.
Judging by the results of the midterm election of 1994, Basu said, a divided government can be good for the economy. Back then, the two parties found ways to "come together over certain pieces of legislation, most of it pro business," he said.
Still, he added, "it's possible job growth will slow in the year ahead nationally and in the Washington metro area."
That's because drivers of the recovery here -- economic stimulus dollars and retail sales -- may be temporary. For instance, he said, it's possible that "some fraction of consumer pent-up demand has already been satisfied and will not be available next year to drive growth forward."