Sometimes Reaching New Highs Is Not a Good Thing: DC Unemployment and Food Stamp Levels Reach Historic Highs

Some DC policymakers have commented that DC is weathering the economic downturn better than most.  By that, they mean that our budget problems are not as bad as in other cities and states.

That may be true.  But indicators of the well-being of DC residents tell a very different story.  Unemployment is at a 25-year high and food stamp recipients now number more than any year on record.  DC families are not weathering the downturn well at all.

Unemployment: 9.9% of DC’s workforce was unemployed in April, a total of 30,000 people. On average, 1,000 residents have lost their jobs every month over the past year.  DC’s unemployment rate is now higher than in any year since 1983.  Today’s unemployment rate exceeds any time in the 1990s, when DC’s economy went into a major tailspin.  And these figures don’t even include people who are too discouraged to look for work.

The unemployment rate tells us DC residents are losing jobs, but not who is being affected most – is it lawyers or laborers?  In particular, the unemployment rate alone doesn’t show how DC’s most vulnerable families are being affected by the downturn.  For that, we can look at another measure.

Food Stamps:  The number of residents getting food stamps is a good indicator of economic hardship, since the program is limited to low-income households (those below 130 percent of poverty.)

Like unemployment, DC’s food stamp rolls are rising rapidly.  Over 101,000 DC residents received food stamps in January 2009.  That’s more than one in six residents, and it is higher than the annual average for any year on record (the records go back to 1989).  In some ways, this is a good thing, because it means people needing help are getting it.  In DC, a relatively high share of eligible households gets food stamps.  But it also is a sign that more people are in need and a sign that poverty is on the rise.

For a city where poverty didn’t fall during the boom years of the early 2000s, this is decidedly bad news.