Washington's unusual economic strength has been demonstrated once again by the absence of substantial local hardship during this year's recession.
But at its core, the local economy remains a breeding ground for despair. If you are a lawyer, an accountant, a doctor, a writer or a skilled construction worker, metropolitan Washington's relative affluence makes this region one of the most comfortable places in the country for work and leisure.
What's wrong is the absence of a full range of employment opportunities for the less skilled, less educated and less wealthy.
A few area business leaders, such as lawyer and former Greater Washington Board of Trade president Robert Linowes, have emphasized what they see as a growing and dangerous gap between the area's rich and poor.
Generally, however, the problem has been overlooked in the rush by area jurisdictions to attract ever more professional and technical employers.
A new study, being published today, fills this vaccum with a sober warning that the region's booming economy is leaving too many people behind. Our economy is evidently too narrow at its base to provide adequate jobs for unskilled workers, especially youths and most especially black youths, according to the Greater Washington Research Center.
Moreover, the report concludes that the private sector must assume the leadership in solving this problem. The federal government in Washington and the state governments in Annapolis and Richmond have demonstrated no willingness to make the unpopular decisions necessary for a broad, regional government approach to Washington area weaknesses. Individual local governments will not put regional needs first. That leaves private business with an unusual challenge.
Atlee Shidler, executive vice president of the research center and author of the study published today, is one of the few persons who have been watching local economic developments closely over recent decades.
After reviewing the developments which have created the area's strong growth of recent years, Shidler says there cannot be much doubt that the national government system will continue at the heart of the local economy. In particular, he predicts substantial expansion of international business here during the 1980s because of its "world capitall role."
At the same time, it is possible that the Washington area has reached a point in wealth and size at which it will attract, spawn and stimulate more and more commercial and industrial activity not directly tied to government, and at an accelerating rate. A boom in the technology and communications business here provides support for this thesis.
"Many of the area's assets that are thought to be attractive to foreign capital and business should also be attractive to American capital and business," Shidler states.
The key question may not be whether such growth will take place "but what specific kinds of economic activity it will bring," Shidler states. "What is mostly at stake . . . is not business prosperity but social prosperity, not the stability of the economy but the stability of the community."
Shidler finds a "profound incompleteness" in a local economy characterized by high unemployment among black youths and the absence of a reduction in poverty households at the same time there is a striking increase in the number of upper-income households. Such a gap threatens the vitality of home rule in the District, he warns.
A key problem in the increased role of the U.S. government in central decision-making is that such activities employ a disproportionately large share of any organization's most experienced, highest placed, most highly trained and hence highest paid personnel. This is so, Shidler argues, whether the organization is government, private industry or citizen group. He cites the following statistics:
Whereas professionals, technicians, managers and administrators accounted for 28 percent of area jobs in 1960, they accounted for 41 percent by 1978.
Between 1970 and 1977, area population rose less than 6 percent but the number of adults aged 25 and over with college degrees jumped 60 percent.
In just three years, between 1974 and 1977, households here with incomes of more than $35,000 soared 230 percent, from a 16th of all households to one-fifth.
This sort of environment provided few job and advancement opportunities for the unskilled and, allowing for inflation, the number of low-income households here actually increased in the midst of this great affluence.
Shidler suggests two ways to attack this shortcoming: better education and training for jobs the economy does provide, and a planned effort to hold and attract the kinds of industrial and commercial enterprises that offer relatively large numbers of jobs for unskilled persons. In addition, a decline in the youth population and a tendency of businesses to be attracted by the region's new assets will help.
But "almost nothing in the city's history" would indicate that the federal government is likely to provide leadership in this area. Local governments, meanwhile, are competing among themselves for the types of industries that already characterize area employment patterns.
Private business is the most promising source of leadership because needed jobs will be in the private sector, because business leadership here has begun to broaden its concerns beyond strictly business interests, because more and more area business is operated on a regional basis rather than within individual jurisdictions, and because major business organizations have become increasingly regional in outlook, Shidler concludes.
The age of boosterism did not die with Sinclair Lewis. Although the Main Street of today may be called K Street or King Street or Charles Street, there is a natural tendency to describe what's good about a local community and to ignore problems when courting outsiders.
Because of this flaw, it is easy for cynics to dismiss boosterism. But the longevity of this typically American trait also suggests that there is something of value created. For one thing, regional promotion helps establish a sense of community, which has not been particularly strong here. And Shidler does spot conditions that could lead to a growing sense of community. That also will be helpful in seeking to broaden the area economy.
The report out today is must reading for area business leaders. It is the last in the Greater Washington Research Center's 1980 series of state of the region reports, to be published in a book, "Greater Washington in 1980," and available from the center about Nov. 1. The center is located at 1717 Massachusetts Ave. NW.