Washington, DC: The Recession-Proof Fantasy

Posted on September 20, 2011

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By Larry Duvalier

Take a trip to Washington, DC.  Ask your average upper-middle-class government or non-profit employee, and you will be certain to hear the common mantra that DC has weathered the recession much better than the rest of the U.S.  You will be informed that DC is a place with countless job opportunities and a lower unemployment rate than the rest of a country still ravaged by the recession.  This common knowledge will be repeated to you both by the mainstream press (Washington Post)  and by the right-wing nutjob press (Washington Times).

None of it is true!  Depending on how you add up the numbers (seasonally-adjusted or not, etc.), DC at present has an alarming rate of unemployment at 11.3%, much higher than the U.S. average, which sits at 9.3%.  Just ask the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  All the data is readily available.

However, back in March of last year, a source as reputable as Forbes put DC at the top of its list of “Cities Where the Recession is Easing.”  The report claims a comfortably low unemployment rate of 6.2% for the city.  In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics states quite unambiguously that the unemployment rate for DC in March of 2010 was 11.6%.

So, what’s going on here?!?  Forbes has, of course, simply cooked the books by taking “the city” to include a select few of its wealthiest suburbs in order to arrive at its optimistic number.  The actual problem at hand, however, is much larger because it’s not just Forbes spreading these lies.  Remember that our upper-middle-class government employee still remains convinced that Forbes is telling the truth.  Why would that be?

Washington, DC is the perfect microcosm of America as a whole, exaggerated to the point of caricature, so that the naked truth is easier to see.  It’s just like those images on cereal boxes that are “enlarged to show texture,” so don’t think for one minute that all of its conflicts and contradictions aren’t present in the rest of the U.S.  In DC, they’re just more immediately apparent.

The social makeup of DC, in a nutshell:

  • Group #1: A class of prissy, snot-nosed (usually white) upper-middle-class government employees and non-profit do-gooders who come to the city from the great suburban landscapes of New England and the Upper Midwest.  These people do all the talking, and make all the money.
  • Group #2: A class of recent immigrants (usually speakers of Amharic or Spanish as their first language) who fill a majority of the jobs not related to the dreamy pursuits of Group #1.  These people do all the work, and yet earn only subsistence-level wages.
  • Group #3: A class of the actual born-and-raised residents of DC (usually black) who find themselves underprivileged and mired in poverty within a stone’s throw of the Capitol building.  These people may have an opportunity here and there to get a job from the “trickle-down” table scraps of the federal government, but, for the most part, they find themselves completely and totally screwed by the system as a whole.  (And they’re not too happy about it, either.)

The secret to the discrepancy between reality and illusion in DC’s current economic situation lies in the dynamic between these groups.  The Forbes report, as well as the other optimistic portrayals, represents solely the standpoint of Group #1.  From their point of view, everything is just fine in DC because, indeed, government internships are flourishing.  Our hypothetical upper-middle-class DC specimen with whom we opened is, therefore, correct in his assessment that DC has weathered the recession quite well, but only in so far as “DC” is taken to equal his own subjective standpoint, the standpoint of Group #1.  The problem, of course, is that the other two groups do exist, as well, and they know damn well that they’re not seeing a piece of the proverbial pie.  Group #2 and—especially—Group #3 can do nothing but laugh when they hear of the fantasies of Group #1.  Laughter, however, can only do so much when you’re getting driven out of your home.

The partisans of Group #1—Forbes, the Washington Times, the Washington Post, or the members of the group themselves—have the audacity to claim that their interests, and their job prospects, coincide with those of society as a whole.  The other two groups know that it’s all a sham.  But why is it so difficult for Group #1 to understand the actual dynamics of the situation, especially when the other two groups are able to see it so clearly and so effortlessly?  Surely, Group #1 is intelligent enough to understand.  After all, it undeniably takes at least some degree of intelligence to secure a cushy government job.  However, intelligence isn’t really the issue, because Group #1—recognizing only itself as “DC” or “society” (take your pick)—fails to acknowledge that other two groups even exist.  Group #1 remains unaware—and, in fact, incapable of awareness—of the conditions under which Group #2 and Group #3 live, for, indeed, they have no reason to know, and will sleep much better at night if they can remain ignorant.  The other two groups, for their part, know Group #1 better than it knows itself, but they don’t yet have their own Forbes with which to fight back.  They remain, to Group #1, invisible, and so it only follows logically that Group #1’s outlook on the economy—and even its statistics—would treat them as invisible.  But, under this cloak of invisibility, they’re busy at work, so don’t act surprised when the next riot comes around.

One man’s “up and coming neighborhood” is another man’s forced migration.  The latter knows what’s up; the former is clueless.  One can see the situation as a whole; the other can see only his own narcissistic fantasy world.

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