ON THE STOOPS and street corners where clusters of jobless black men pass the time every day, no one cares to hear how economically vital this area is in comparison with other cities. If you have spent more years out of work than with a job, it means nothing that the region has comparatively low unemployment, very high per-capita income, a high volume of retail sales and a new surge of employment growth. The pockets of deprivation downtown run deep -- unemployment in the city is nearly double that of the region as a whole, and in certain neighborhoods up to 50 percent of the 16- to 24-year-olds are jobless.
John E. Jacob, who as executive vice president of the Washington Urban League directed two thorough surveys of poor people, has noted that "basically, there are three Washingtons not working well together now: low-income black central Washington, federal Washington and affluent white suburban Washington. Needed is the recognition that it is efficient for each, while tackling its own problems, to influence the others' problem-solving constructively." But what keeps these three Washingtons apart?
In the rapid growth of the last 20 years, many of the new jobs have been middle- to upper-level positions in the federal government and professional-level jobs in the private sector. As noted in a draft economic paper prepared for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, these jobs have been concentrated in the District, where the unemployed have not had the above-average experience and education required. In the suburbs, meanwhile, great numbers of jobs have been added in retail trade, personal services and local government, with many requiring few skills.
The obvious solution -- to train people for new work and then transport them to it -- is not just around the corner. At a COG hearing Thursday, officials noted that regionally shared lists of job openings are scarce and that it takes more than a new subway to match city and suburban people with jobs around the region. Mayor Barry, in comments prepared for the hearing, observed that the numbers of Anacostians working in Northern Virginia or of Maryland residents working east of 15th Street NW are relatively low, in part because of a "psychological barrier . . . . People don't want to enter unknown turf to go to work." So in addition to better information on jobs, people need to feel more comfortable using public transportation to new surroundings.
Still, as Rep. Joseph L. Fisher (D-Va.) warned, there are limits to what the region's governments can do to prevent unemployment, curb inflation, increase productivity and spur economic growth. These are national issues that will have a greater effect on the region as the local economy becomes less dependent on the federal government and linked more to growth of the private sector. What will be important locally is an effort by COG and other regional groups to come up with policies on fuel conservation, air pollution, housing and the other problems that increasingly will relate to national and international developments.