A majority of District of Columbia residents do not think city workers should be required to live in Washington, apparently rejecting the notion of mandatory residency that has guided the hiring principles of the city's liberal home rule government according to a Washington Post poll.
The Post poll, taken last month, found blacks and whites holding clearly different opinions on the residency issue, with white respondents opposing the residency requirement by a 2-to-1 margin and blacks split evenly on whether city employees should have to live here.
The poll found sharp discrepancies drawn partially along racial lines on attitudes toward the city's work force, which has posed an increasingly difficult dilemma for Mayor Marion Barry and the City Council as they attempt to grapple with a worsening budget crisis through spending cuts and job reductions.
Among those polled, whites tended to evaluate the city government on the basis of sevices offered, while blacks were much more inclined to view it as a likely employer of last resort. Whites tended to see the city's work force as too big and overpaid.
Blacks tended to view the city bureaucracy as smaller than necessary and underpaid when compared to persons holding similar jobs outside the city government.
On the residency issue, the Post poll, conducted by telephone from Dec. 11 to Dec. 18, asked 1,078 Washingtonians whether they felt that "people who work for the District of Columbia government should or should not be required to live in the city." Overall, 53 percent of those who responded said no, compared to 42 percent who said yes. The remaining 5 percent said they didn't know.
Whites strongly opposed a residency requirement, 64 percent to 31 percent. Blacks split evenly on the question, with 47 percent favoring a residency requirement and 47 percent opposing it.
The findings of the poll strongly suggest that the District government's work force could be one of the most far-reaching and volatile issues during the coming months, as city officials struggle to hold the line on city spending -- at times through layoffs, job freezes and pay-raise limits.
The size and compensation of the city's labor force is of concern not only to Congress, which has ultimate control over District government finances, but also to the politically potent business community, whose members have often criticized the city bureaucracy as bloated, inefficient and a cause of unnecessary high taxes.
By laying off city workers, streamlining the bureaucracy and holding down pay raises, Barry has won praise from Capitol Hill and from the business commuinity. But those same actions have wrought serious political damage in Washington's black community.
"The average middle-class black person depends on the city government for money", said Council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2), who supports the residency law. "The city government is the middle class. That's one reason for the low popularity rating of the mayor [in a recent Post poll]."
"Under [former mayor] Walter Washington, the city government was the employer of last resort. People have gotten used to that," Wilson said. He added, "They're going to have to get unused to it."
The political dilemma of having to balance the two conflicting opinions on the city work force is heightened by the feeling among many blacks that politically active whites are regaining control of the city, and the identification of white interests in the city with the business community.
In fact, the poll found that blacks to a far greater degree than whites tended to believe that the business community has more power than the mayor and the City Council.
The city's residency law, which only became effective one year ago, requires all new city employees to be D.C. residents within six months of being hired or lose their jobs. But the law has drawn increasing criticism from unions, which vehemently oppose it, and from city personnel officials who see the law as hampering the recruitment of badly needed specialists in certain areas. Moreover, many municipalities that earlier enacted residency requirements have said recently that such requirements have been ineffective.
For years before home rule, there was a perception in the city -- especially among blacks -- that the best city jobs were too often held by whites and suburbanities. When blacks assumed political control, elected officials, led in part by Barry as a council member, insisted on holding many of these jobs for city residents -- residents of a city whose population is 76 percent black -- both to induce civic pride and to keep District dollars inside the city limits.
In 1977, the city government enacted a new system of civil service regulations, including the residency requirement. But high housing costs in an increasingly tight market have forced many blacks into the suburbs to look for homes and discouraged many suburbanites from moving into the city. Thus, the views on what was once considered a hometown cause have become split.
"You've got the big money from the best jobs going out to white folks who live in the suburbs, or at least that's the way blacks still view it," said William H. Simmons, president of the Washington Teachers Union. Still, Simons, whose union represents many of the rank and file of the city's middle class, is a staunch opponent of residency.
City Council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large) supports mandatory residency. "It's good for the tax base and it's good for the tax burden.People who are opposed to it don't understand the economics of the situation," she said.
However, union officials opposed to residency requirements reacted to the findings of the poll as proof that residency is an outdated idea that is out of touch with the mainstream thinking of the community.
"People now know how difficult it is to find and maintain housing in the city," said Bernard Demczuk, political action coordinator for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Council 211 in the District. "Civic pride goes out the back door when inflation comes in the front door."
The poll drew a clear picture of the different relationship that many blacks and whites have with the city government.
In a city where government is the largest employer, 18 percent of the blacks interviewed said that someone in their household was employed by the District of Columbia government, compared to 5 percent for whites. In comparison, 34 percent of the whites said someone in their household worked for the federal government, compared to 29 percent of blacks.
An overwhelming majority -- 64.5 percent -- of whites interviewed think that the city's work force is too big. Thirty-seven percent of the whites interviewed said they felt the city employs "far too many" people and almost 28 percent said the city employees "somewhat too many". On the other hand, 46.2 percent of blacks said the city's work force was too small, and only 31 percent of blacks thought the city employed too many people.
When asked to compare the pay of city workers here and in the private sector, 28 percent of the whites interviewed said District government employees were paid more, while 35 percent of the blacks thought the District's government employees were paid less.
When asked to choose between either service cutbacks and layoffs of city workers or increased property taxes as a way to solve the city's financial problems, 27 percent of the whites favored layoffs and service cuts, compared to only 11 percent of the blacks.
Forty-two percent of the whites favored property tax increases, compared to 60 percent of the blacks.
While the poll showed blacks more dependent upon the city government and more protective of its work force, a 53.5 percent majority of blacks thought that the business community in Washington had more power than the elected mayor and City Council members, compared to 46 percent of whites who thought so.
Eight years after Congress granted limited home rule, the poll findings show that overall home rule, the poll findings show that overall, 50.7 percent of District residents think the business community has more power than the elected officials.
But it is when looking at household incomes that the black community's dependence on the District government becomes most clear. The poll findings showed that of blacks with household incomes in excess of $30,000 a year, 30 percent had someone in that household working for the city government. On the other hand, of whites and total household incomes over $30,000 annually, only 5.7 percent had a city government employee in the household.
Similarly, of those black households with incomes between $20,000 and $30,000 a year, some 20.3 percent were city employee households. Of the whites in that same income bracket, only 9 percent were city employee households.
The findings strongly suggested that not only is the District government viewed as a principal employer for blacks, but for many it is a source of high incomes and middle-class life.