Greater Greater Washington

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DC needs better data to fight unemployment

Mayor Gray has made employment for DC residents a top priority. But without good data, policies are little more than a stab in the dark.


Photo by wouter_kersbergen on Flickr.

It's quite surprising how little data DC collects on unemployment. What obstacles do the unemployed face in getting jobs? If the obstacle is a skills mismatch, are there training providers available that teach those skills?

Do those trainers have a track record of results? If it's lack of jobs, have past development incentives created jobs as promised for DC residents?

We don't know the answers to these questions because the District government isn't collecting or reporting the data to answer them. When the data exists in some database, it's often not organized or delivered to policymakers. At other times, the data doesn't exist at all, but agencies could collect it cheaply.

Who are the unemployed?

Tackling crisis-level unemployment is one of Mayor Gray's top priorities. Yet the DC government appears to have no profile of the unemployed in DC and their barriers to employment.

Even the number of unemployed by ward that DC provides each month is deeply flawed. Each month, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics samples DC residents and reports unemployment for DC. The DC Office of Labor Market Research then allocates that number to each ward based on out-of-date ratios from the last census. Ben Orr of Brookings has shown that the resulting numbers of jobless by ward are sometimes wildly inaccurate.

The government also has no data on the reasons why the jobless don't have a job. This lack of data creates a vacuum that is then filled with assumptions and stereotypes about the obstacles faced by jobless residents.

Advocates for cutting off Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) benefits after 5 years, as the corresponding federal program does, say that dependency on TANF is the cause of unemployment. Those who support tax incentives for developers say that lack of jobs is to blame. Smart growth advocates point to lack of affordable transit access to most jobs. Training providers say that the problem is a mismatch between workers' skills and available jobs.

Who is right? What policies should we invest in to address unemployment? We don't know because we lack basic data about the unemployed.

Investment in a survey of unemployed DC residents by a research company on an annual basis would cost a fraction of what these policies cost, and would help ensure we are actually targeting the true causes of unemployment.

Who are the training providers and are they effective?

The District has no data on the effectiveness of training providers across the city. In fact, the director of one training provider recently told me that the Department of Employment Services (DOES) actually has no comprehensive list of training providers at all.

The training providers, known as Workforce Development Organizations, provide a range of services from soft skills training and hard skills training to case management of jobless clients. What percentage of their clients get a job? More importantly, what percentage of their clients are still employed a year or two later? No one knows.

The DC Department of Employment Services (DOES) should require such reporting by recipients of government funding. This data could presumably be verified using payroll tax data.

Of course, no one knows the extent to which we should even invest in job training because we have no definitive profile of the obstacles to employment faced by jobless residents.

What development projects have received incentives, and have they been worth it?

The CFO's office does not track economic impact of development projects that receive incentives. In fact, there appears to be no comprehensive list in existence of companies that have received tax incentives for development projects over the past 5-10 years.

The District has provided billions of dollars in tax abatements and TIF financing to developers over the past decade. The rationale of proponents is that these investments bring a return to the District in the form of corporate property taxes, sales taxes and jobs for DC residents. If proponents of what some call corporate welfare are so sure that these returns are real, then why not track and report them to bolster their case?

All this data should exist in the Office of Tax and Revenue's (OTR) integrated tax system. OTR says that sales taxes cannot be tracked by address when retailers have multiple DC locations. However, recipients of incentives could simply be required to report such data by address as a condition of receiving incentives.

Hotels under construction currently in the District are receiving over $500 million of tax incentives in total. While some are questioning whether we will really see that money in higher tax revenues, the reality is we will never know.

It's difficult to solve problems when you don't know their causes or whether previous attempted solutions worked. When such information is lacking, then dogma and stereotyping supplants reasonable, data-driven policy discussions.

Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son. Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. 

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Advocates for cutting off Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) benefits after 5 years, as the corresponding federal program does, say that dependency on TANF is the cause of unemployment.

I don't think this is quite right--at least it misrepresents what some are arguing. I think the main issue here is that we need to bring DC's policies on TANF benefits in line with that of MD and VA.

Otherwise, all we're doing is importing the chronically unemployable from the suburbs.

Given that the dynamic has been for many years now that a) unemployed person gets help from DC government; b) some percentage of unemployed persons manage to get a job and enter middle-class; c) the success stories move to the suburbs; d) folks who fall out of the middle-class for whatever reason (quite rationally) move into the city in order to receive much move generous benefits; e) repeat.

The solution is to lobby to raise benefits regionally in sync with one another.

by oboe on Nov 22, 2011 11:22 am • linkreport

Smart growth advocates point to lack of affordable transit access to most jobs.

I've never really thought that the main issue behind DC's unemployment is lack of affordable transit. In fact, I would think that DC's rather abundant affordable transit perversely draws the unemployed (since it's cheaper to live without a car). Otherwise, wouldn't transit poor areas have much higher unemployment than DC?

by Steven Yates on Nov 22, 2011 11:47 am • linkreport

Otherwise, wouldn't transit poor areas have much higher unemployment than DC?

Transit poor areas of DC and the metro area at large DO have higher unemployment rates.

There isn't good transit from Wards 7/8 (where the unemployed live) to Fairfax (where the lower skill jobs are).

by Falls Church on Nov 22, 2011 12:15 pm • linkreport

TANF, Tax Development dollars to developers and Transit. None of these things are either/or, but they all feed the equation.

No, people aren't saying TANF causes unemployment. It is a symptom in a larger broken system than is all carrot and no stick. TANF in perpetuity gives people no real incentive to get a job, but isn't the sole reason they are unemployed.

People who support thought out incentives for developers are right to a certain extent. You can't look at a SW Waterfront, a Columbia Heights or a U Street and say with a straight face that public tax dollars were wasted, or that the taxpayer isn't getting an enormous return on their money. Other than tracking sales tax revenue, property tax/transfer tax revenue etc, I am not sure how one would specificially track a hard dollar amount.

Of all the three, availablity of transit is not one I would really consider applicable to DC's unemployment rate.

"Hotels under construction currently in the District are receiving over $500 million of tax incentives in total."

This isn't really true. Projects that "include" hotels are recieving half a billion dollars, but the SW Waterfront and City Market projects include hundreds of millions / billions of dollars in construction of additional retail/residential/office etc.

by freely on Nov 22, 2011 12:19 pm • linkreport

I'd have to say, when most of the people in DC government live outside of the city, that's the first place to start. Why not produce some requirement that you have to be a DC resident to work for the city? Maybe just starting with the employees of Council and the Executive Branch, but all in all, I think this is one of the best ideas so far. Why are my tax dollars being spent to pay salaries of people who tear up our roads, cause more traffic and congestion, and end up not paying anything in DC income taxes or property taxes or most of their sales taxes. While initially it would likely result in just an inward migration of city employees, over the long haul I think it would bring our numbers up.

by shawguy on Nov 22, 2011 12:22 pm • linkreport

@Shawguy,

I could probably be convinced that having programs that encourage low income / laborer jobs be filled in the District is generally an ok thing, even though I have some pretty direct experience as to how it doesn't work (you can set aside as many jobs as you want for District residents, but if they never show up, or only show up for a couple days of work, then the program is useless).

But I am sorry, I want my professional jobs filled by the smartest, most experienced option out there. If that person is from FFX, or Gaithersburg then so be it.

These positions are open for anyone to fill. Someone from DC can apply as eaily as someone from Lorton.

Why you would purposely hire someone unqualified, or measurably less qualified to do a job is lunacy to me. You might as well pile their salary on the sidewalk and set it aflame.

by freely on Nov 22, 2011 12:38 pm • linkreport

@Shawguy

If gov't jobs in every jurisdiction in our area are only available to residents of that jurisdiction, that doesn't help anyone.

On the other hand -- If DC govt needs an IT guy and hires someone from Fairfax because that's where a lot of IT people live, and in return Fairfax needs a PR person and hires someone from DC because that's where PR people live, that's good for everyone.

by Falls Church on Nov 22, 2011 1:08 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church
Let's assume for a moment the low skilled jobs for which the unemployed in DC are well suited for are in Fairfax (I don't necessarily doubt this assertion, I have no evidence either way). If that's true and high quality transit is the only thing keeping people from these jobs, shouldn't Fairfax have a higher unemployment rate (since Fairfax has worse transit options than Wards 7 and 8)? Obviously there are other factors that figure where unemployment is high and I think those reasons (for instance education, economic development, differences in unemployment benefits etc.), and I'm saying those way heavier than transit access.

by Steven Yates on Nov 22, 2011 1:25 pm • linkreport

DC Government's employment application includes a residency preference option; DC residents are offered a certain number of bonus points when applications for a specific position are ranked and rated, provided the applicant claims the preference and agrees to remain a DC resident for at least 7 years if they are offered and accept the position.

That said, skills mismatch is probably the greatest factor buoying chronic unemployment in the District of Columbia.

by PowerBroker on Nov 22, 2011 1:39 pm • linkreport

There's a huge skills mismatch going on here among the chronically un- and under-employed and what employers are looking for. And not even for jobs that most of us would probably considered "skilled" jobs. The city and Metro came to an agreement that metro would hire DC residents for a certain number of jobs, primarily from city jobs programs. Hundreds of people applied; something like 30 of them were found to be qualified. I believe the number of available positions was about 150.

Not only do people not have the necessary skills, but city jobs programs clearly aren't preparing them.

It's certainly magnified here, but we're seeing this across the country. The no-skill living wage job is gone (heck, it's a valid question to ask if the no-skill job, regardless of wage, is gone). Even something like a nursing assistant, which is going to be long hours of little pay and almost no thanks, still requires some investment of time and money in training.

by Birdie on Nov 22, 2011 2:36 pm • linkreport

If that's true and high quality transit is the only thing keeping people from these jobs, shouldn't Fairfax have a higher unemployment rate (since Fairfax has worse transit options than Wards 7 and 8)

It's not the "only thing", it's not even the most important thing but it's probably a significant factor. FFX doesn't have a higher unemployment rate because a) FFX has better transit options for FFX residents to FFX jobs, simply because the distances aren't as far from wards 7/8, and b) FFX residents are higher skilled, so they have more job opptys, and are more likely to own a car so they don't need to rely on transit.

by Falls Church on Nov 22, 2011 2:57 pm • linkreport

@Yates

Here's anecdotal evidence of the difficulty of getting to jobs in Fairfax for workers in the eastern part of the region (where unemployment is the worst)

http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/commuting/public-transportation-can-leave-tysons-workers-in-a-bind/2011/10/17/gIQA0TOoGM_story.html

by Falls Church on Nov 22, 2011 3:00 pm • linkreport

It starts much earlier than this. There's a fundamental lack of respect and urgency in all lower classes for educational attainment. As a coping mechanism, most people will blame externalities for their predicament as they watch others pass them by economically. This is especially acute in DC where race and race based culture disincentivize people from sticking their neck out too far. And where there's a convenient and local boogeyman to blame. Compounded with a, "we're going to do it our way" philosophy and the fact that you're competing locally from people from all over the country, and you have a recipe for the mess we're in now.

Most people see it for what it is, votes for turkeys. Pun intended.

by ahk on Nov 22, 2011 3:01 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church
Thanks. Having made that trip to Tyson's via transit (once) I must commend those who do it on a daily basis. But I guess what my question comes down to is that once the Silver Line opens, do you think we will see a drop in EotR unemployment because of it? Personally I doubt it, but I can't really disprove it.

by Steven Yates on Nov 22, 2011 3:10 pm • linkreport

Not sure exactly what Ken is getting at here. More data would obviously be better, but the body of his post doesn't really address that.

Re: bad ward-level data.

Yes, it's not accurate. So what? Fixing that on a geographic level still won't tell you much about the unemployed themselves.

Frankly, the inaccurate ward-level data is completely irrelevant to the core issue of addressing the needs of the unemployed wherever they may be.

Re: why they are unemployed.

This data isn't available because it's not easy to collect. If you're looking for data that's useful and actionable and collected on a regular basis, how would you go about doing so in an objective and systematic way? There's a reason why the Census and the BLS do not do so, because measuring such variables isn't reliable or really repeatable.

Instead, maybe using focus groups or some other means of adding some qualitative metrics to the quantitative ones would address the issue of information instead of just data.

Re: job training programs

Nobody really knows how effective they are. They're micro-level interventions into what is often a macro-level problem.

Politicians of all stripes and in all places like them because they're things they can do and point to as accomplishments. This isn't DC specific by any means.

Re: development incentives.

This seems like a complete non-sequitir to the question of local employment.

by Alex B. on Nov 22, 2011 3:24 pm • linkreport

But I guess what my question comes down to is that once the Silver Line opens, do you think we will see a drop in EotR unemployment because of it?

If the Silver Line is to be a success (and that's a big IF), that has to be the case. The success of the Silver Line is based on bringing workers to Tysons, not sending workers from Tysons to DC. Tysons will add 100K jobs in the coming decades. Some of those workers will be filling high skilled jobs but a lot of those people are going to drive anyway. A big chunk of the new jobs/ridership will be for folks working retail, restaurants, and hotels, and there's probably not sufficient available labor in FFX/Arlington, so they'll have to pull from DC/PG.

by Falls Church on Nov 22, 2011 3:53 pm • linkreport

But I guess what my question comes down to is that once the Silver Line opens, do you think we will see a drop in EotR unemployment because of it? Personally I doubt it, but I can't really disprove it.

That's not really the full question. If the Silver Line doesn't increase employment directly for those jobs in Tysons, but substantially reduces the travel time for workers to get to their job, isn't that a huge benefit?

by Alex B. on Nov 22, 2011 4:02 pm • linkreport

I'm not convinced, at all, that the Silver Line to Tysons is going to fix the unemployment problems in wards 7 and 8. Even the low-skill jobs that will be available will likely require some level of experience. At best, it makes a very small dent.

by Birdie on Nov 22, 2011 4:11 pm • linkreport

Re: job training programs

Nobody really knows how effective they are. They're micro-level interventions into what is often a macro-level problem.

Which reminds me: we often talk about the unemployed (or destitute, or homeless) as though they were some sort of finite set of people. And that all we need to do is somehow get that set of people training and jobs and then Wards 7 & 8 will have a lower unemployment rate.

But I think that gets the problem wrong. Populations are very mobile at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale. Working class folks who are just above the poverty level can easily sink below; very poor folks who happen to get services and job placement can rise above. And people who go from one class to another are also extremely likely to go from one living situation to another (e.g. They're foreclosed on and move into a shelter or efficiency apartment. They leave the homeless shelter and get an apartment.).

So even if the raw numbers don't change, the actual set of individuals who are living in high-poverty areas of DC is constantly changing.

That doesn't mean that the actual DC employment numbers necessarily reflect the effectiveness of DC policy. To gauge that you'd need to take into account this population turnover. If large numbers of Ward 7 and 8 residents in poverty are entering these programs, are assisted, then entering the working- and middle-class, and moving out to middle-class suburbs, only to be replaced by newly poor (either because they become adults with no job prospects, or have catastrophic expenses, or fall victim to addiction) then DC programs can be a success and not move the needle on DC poverty.

by oboe on Nov 22, 2011 4:46 pm • linkreport

@oboe

Yes, Ed Glaeser made essentially that point in 'Triumph of the City.' Cities (in general) have lots of poor people because they have a great deal of economic opportunity. The concentrations of poor are often a sign of underlying strength of the economy, not weakness.

by Alex B. on Nov 22, 2011 5:19 pm • linkreport

If large numbers of Ward 7 and 8 residents in poverty are entering these programs, are assisted, then entering the working- and middle-class, and moving out to middle-class suburbs, only to be replaced by newly poor (either because they become adults with no job prospects, or have catastrophic expenses, or fall victim to addiction) then DC programs can be a success and not move the needle on DC poverty.

Well, DC programs could then be considered a success at treating the symptoms but not at preventing the root causes of poverty. For that, you need to see fewer people falling into the poverty trap in the first place -- not just escaping when the land their.

by Falls Church on Nov 22, 2011 5:36 pm • linkreport

Don't get me wrong, I think the Silver line will be a great value to the region, and will be an economic boon for the Tyson's corridor. I think some people who would otherwise be unemployed (say) EotR will find jobs thanks to the Silver Line (both in that there will be more jobs and that they will be easier to got to). It's just that I don't think that number will be terribly large because of other factors I mentioned earlier (and probably several that I didn't).

@oboe:
I think there is this perception that a large number of the unemployed in DC are chronically so. So in a sense, those people are a distinct population. Now how many people fall into that group versus the unemployed population as a whole I don't know (and maybe this gets back to Ken's main point about information).

by Steven Yates on Nov 22, 2011 6:00 pm • linkreport

Very interesting and timely article. I am a WIA eligible training provider in the Washington Metropolitan Statistical Area (Washington-MSA) which includes DC, Maryland, Virginia & West Virginia. We're on the Northern Virginia Eligible Training Providers list.

We have been very successful in helping DC residents in the past secure the job openings we obtain. Employers PAY us for finding quality talent! This can range anywhere from 10 to 30% of the first years salary for each hired candidate.

The Gray administration has knowledgeable people Mayor Gray can tap to get things done (based on what he's got on his plate at the moment). There is data on DC's unemployed. We have it. The problem is that when you try to share it with whoever is in the driver's seat at the moment, it's a challenge to get things done to say the least. This isn't a personnel issue, it's a language or employment 'process' issue. Imagine DoES being a computer operating system like Windows, and the business community in general being like Apple's OS X. They can both get things done in their own way, but they are entirely different, and may share only when necessary (if under the right circumstances).

Creating jobs in DC, involves a grassroots effort to got out and talk to businesses DAILY! Repeatedly! All the data that is gathered during this herculean effort can be 'data mined' and analyzed when the field staff actually knows and understands that it is the DATA they're after. Using this data towards a specific, and time sensitive goals turns this into no less than a logistical, and semi-military like operation.

With so many moving parts in job creation operations (such as the ones we have conducted), your teams will get hungry and they'll need to eat. They'll also have to pay parking, and gas to go from business to business. They'll use up a lot of resources, but JOBS CAN BE CREATED using this aggressive, grass roots approach. It works.

Then there's the issue of getting paid (or reimbursed) for all your efforts and I won't even go there because I'm still heading back to court soon with DC on unpaid invoices we were given vouchers and directed to perform services. The data I speak of will probably be forced into open court via litigation as is usually the case during lawsuits. The entire employment process is BROKEN! Sadly though, we can fix it, jobs can be created and DC has some really great talent to be hired if you can get everyone on the right page.

The jobs that are created, provide a significant rate of return because it costs less to 'train and place' then it does to support the unemployed.

We'll continue the 'good fight' for job creation, and hopefully with the public's continued participation from good, and thought provoking people such as the ones highlighted here; we'll reach some of our goals before it's too late.

Like you say in your masthead, Washington, DC is good, but it could be BETTER! I hope in sharing your readers pursuit of this, I one day soon be calling you neighbor. DC sure has a lot to offer, and 2 hour commutes just aren't cutting it in my life anymore!

by David Hoffman on Nov 22, 2011 7:20 pm • linkreport

@David,

The jobs that are created, provide a significant rate of return because it costs less to 'train and place' then it does to support the unemployed.

I don't mean to be defeatist, but if my theory about the ebb and flow of poverty between DC and the suburbs is even partly correct, then it's possible that we're paying for effective job creation programs, but also supporting the same number of unemployed we would be if these job creation programs weren't effective.

For decades, we've been exporting our successes to the suburbs, and importing the suburbs' failures to replace them.

by oboe on Nov 22, 2011 10:33 pm • linkreport

@oboe Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You raised some interesting points. I obtained documents last year that shows specifically how many jobs in Virginia were given to DC residents, and also how many jobs in DC were given to Virginia residents.

In fact, these documents reveal the dynamics of how people move to get the jobs wherever they are. After studying and analyzing the info contained in the documents, I didn't see that there were any unusual patterns in the flow, (if you will) between the different cities that are in a Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA).

All members in an MSA are usually counted as one, but compete for the same dollars in a pot. What I'm trying to say is that I didn't see any evidence where DC residents where more or less qualified than any other residents from other cities or communities.

What I did see, was that although DC has a higher unemployment rate, DC's residents were not as aggressive at pursuing job openings in DC, and in other communities as the residents of those communities are in aggressively pursuing.

I don't think this is the fault of DC government. On the surface, it appears that DC residents were not as willing (or able) to travel to other communities for any job openings (particularly if the residents depend on public transportation). Maybe they're smarter in their approach to not wanting to spend 2 to 3 hrs a day commuting. But to put a serious dent in unemployment, I think it will take a stronger commitment to cooperation, and efficient execution that is not normally a mainstay of Washington's 'Business as Usual'.

DC is very friendly to it's own residents, and visiting workers by providing a public transportation infrastructure, which serves as a central nervous system between the labor pool, and the employers who need productivity to capture opportunity and profits.

I've had the benefit of living all over the world from islands and beaches, to dynamic urban centers for growth and opportunity. DC is a dynamic center for growth and opportunity (particularly if it's marketed that way). But, DC needs to take control of it's own course and LEAD the technology career path, rather than follow or allow the waste and inefficiencies that exist today. Let me give an example of what I mean.

How many electronic and mobile devices will be sold within DC's borders in the next year? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? Ok, how many people are within DC's borders who are trained to help people with their problems using these devices? If there is a ratio of 1-to-50, that is one tech worker for each tech using consumer, would this be enough to sustain DC as a center for technological growth and opportunity?

If there is a huge demand for IT workers to support the consumer base, and this consumer base remains unsupported, yet continues to consume and purchase tech devices, SOMEONE will move to capitalize on this opportunity albeit an individual working for a company who would provide such services, or the individual decides to start a company providing these services, etc.

My point is, the 'opportunity mindset' is what has to be the compass that the Washington MSA must shift to more decisively.

Should any community provide training dollars to it's residents only to have them move to another area because the residents feel they are not getting what they need from their existing community and it's government I feel is a matter than can be decided within the power of your elections process.

As a business owner, I decide to invest capital that I raise based on the responsiveness of the government BEFORE deciding to pursue any opportunity to make money. The reason is, if you can get local government as your partner in job creating economic strategies, rather than your adversary, they'll be a higher probability of a successful outcome.

If a DC resident, gets the training to comply with DOD 8570, and secures the salary that may accompany this position ($70K/yr); this DC resident will quickly find out that $70K will go further by choosing to live in DC than move to the suburbs.

In short, there are both Pro's and Con's to choosing to live and work in DC. Right now, I am looking for the right property to purchase in DC. I'd rather re-direct the hours of daily commute time back to my family or the community where it could be better spent. Being able to contribute 2000+ hours back to family and/or community will surely produce positive results to any community that is friendly to people moving to the city.

I could bore people to death with the huge amount of data I have been collecting and analyzing. But, for those who want to have an appetizer of data, check out this link:
http://www.city-data.com/city/Washington-District-of-Columbia.html

You can also see an example of the training we provide here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dCcu9ZB4yY0&feature=channel_video_title

We're a Workforce Investment Act Training Provider which you can verify on the list here:
http://myskillsource.org/home/documents/2011_november/TrainingProvider_ContactInformationList_November2011.pdf

Thanks for contributing to the conversation! I really enjoyed learning how you feel!

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by David Hoffman on Nov 23, 2011 2:02 pm • linkreport

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