One of the biggest stories in the media today is the high unemployment rate. This story resonates across the country. But here in the District of Columbia, the 9.8 percent unemployment rate means something a bit different because we are talking about our friends and neighbors. Everyone knows someone – or several someones – struggling to find work, sometimes for a year or more. In Wards 7 and 8, circumstances are even worse. By some estimates, the unemployment rate in Ward 8 may exceed 30 percent.
Many District residents, especially those living in the eastern part of the city, are particularly challenged to find employment because they face barriers that appear almost insurmountable. Even if folks do find work, they are challenged to keep jobs because of these barriers. Here, in no particular order, are five of the barriers to employment DC residents encounter most frequently.
1. Literacy – According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), approximately 37 percent of DC adults score at the “below basic” level of literacy. This means that more than one-third of our neighbors have difficulty reading well enough to complete an employment application, or doing math well enough to measure out a pound of turkey on a scale in the deli department of the local supermarket. Add to this a lack of computer literacy and it is clear why so many are having trouble finding employment.
2. Criminal Record – The District welcomes more than 2,500 individuals home from incarceration each year, and the overwhelming majority face employment challenges. In many cases, the simple presence of a criminal record is enough to disqualify someone from consideration for a job. Even convictions unrelated to the job – for felony intent to distribute narcotics by someone seeking a position in the stockroom of a big box store, for example – often knock otherwise-qualified individuals out of contention.
3. Lack of “Soft” Skills – We hear this from employers all the time: bring us people who will show up on time, work well with co-workers, and accept supervision, and we will train them for specific jobs. But so many of the District’s unemployed residents lack these so-called “soft” skills, either because people were never taught these skills in the first place, or because they lack the work history which might have sharpened them. The children of those adults whom the DC public school system has failed over the last several decades are particularly vulnerable; their parents never learned these skills themselves, and are therefore unable to teach their children.
4. Child Care – Affordable, quality child care is difficult to find in the District, even for parents with means. The market rate for child care in DC has doubled over the past five years. Consider this: according to Wider Opportunities for Women’s forthcoming Basic Economic Security Tables Index, a single person can be economically secure throughout his or lifetime with an income of approximately $31,656 a year. But to be economically secure, the single parent of one infant needs to earn more than $57,000 a year. The difference in those amounts is largely due to the cost of child care and taxes paid on the extra income devoted to childcare. Quality and accessibility are also challenges, especially in neighborhoods on the eastern side of the District, and for those parents who work hours other than 9-to-5.
5. Transportation – While WMATA boasts – and correctly – that more than 90 percent of addresses in the District are served by at least one bus line, the transportation system in the District remains a barrier to employment, particularly for residents in Wards 7 and 8. Many entry-level, low-barrier jobs – in construction or hospitality, for example – require employees to arrive at work very early, or to work late. Bus schedules are not always accommodating of non-standard hours. Recent increases in Metro and bus fares make transportation an even greater challenge for low-income residents. And car ownership is often out of reach for low-income residents; even a donated car must be filled with gas and insured.
It is clear that job training alone is not sufficient to fully address the unemployment challenges faced by our most vulnerable neighbors. Supportive services can help ensure unemployed residents can find and keep jobs. Creative and cooperative efforts among businesses, the District and federal governments, and nonprofits can reduce the impact of these barriers. Such efforts can, in essence, turn tens of thousands of unemployed citizens into taxpayers. These taxpayers, in turn, will contribute to the District’s coffers and those of their neighborhoods, climb the ladder to self-sufficiency, and help prepare themselves and their children for good jobs in a growing economy.
The DC Jobs Council is part of Defeat Poverty DC, a is a coalition of organizations and residents in the District of Columbia working to bring greater focus during the 2010 election season and beyond to the damaging effects of poverty on our entire city. DCJC embraces Defeat Poverty’s three-pronged approach to ending poverty: (1) make work possible; (2) make work pay; and (3) make basic needs affordable.