Economic conditions improved slightly in Maryland and were essentially unchanged in the District and Virginia in September, according to Labor Department data released yesterday, which suggests that the region's economy remains in neutral.
Maryland gained 16,100 jobs, and its unemployment rate fell to 4 percent, from 4.3 percent in August. The District lost 3,500 jobs in September, and its unemployment rate was unchanged at 6 percent. Virginia lost 3,000 jobs, but its unemployment rate dropped to 3.9 percent in September, from 4.1 percent in August.
Month-to-month data can fluctuate greatly, economists warn. But combined with job reports from previous months, a picture is emerging of a Washington area economy that is neither improving much nor getting significantly worse. And some economists think that is unlikely to change soon.
"We just don't seem to be adding jobs," said Charles McMillion, chief economist of MBG Information Services. "And we haven't been for two years now."
Over the past two years, Northern Virginia has gained 2,400 jobs, suburban Maryland has shed 10,000 jobs, and the District has lost 3,200 jobs. And a variety of factors -- including local government budget problems, a continued weak business environment and perhaps even the sniper attacks this month, which have driven some area residents to avoid shopping -- augur against an immediate turnaround.
"There are a lot of headwinds on this economy right now," McMillion said.
In September, the job losses were in a variety of employment categories. In both the District and Virginia, the sharpest losses were of government jobs; the District lost 3,400, and Virginia lost 5,300. Economists said that the September losses may turn out to have been statistical flukes but that in the longer run the budget troubles will probably show up in employment numbers.
Last week, for example, Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) said 1,837 state employees will be laid off to save money; the District and Maryland are also facing budget crunches.
Scattered layoffs have continued, especially at locally based technology firms. And, while no firm data exist on the economic impact of the sniper attacks, many suburban retailers report that sales have fallen since the attacks began, and some companies that serve tourists say groups have canceled visits to Washington.
On the plus side, some expect federal government spending, particularly for the war on terrorism and a possible war on Iraq, to funnel money to businesses in the Washington area, though those efforts haven't resulted in much large-scale hiring by federal contractors.
"Big increases in procurement spending should finally start having an impact this [fiscal] year," said Steven Cochrane, chief regional economist of consulting firm Economy.com Inc.