- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2012

New labor statistics show the District’s unemployment rate continues to decline — from 8.9 percent in July to 8.8 percent in August — although the city still lags behind the national rate of 8.1 percent and nearly 1 in 4 residents of Ward 8 cannot find work.

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray coyly referred to the “good news” during his biweekly press briefing last week, but he had to wait until Friday to unveil the embargoed numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The number of unemployed D.C. residents dropped from 31,700 to 31,200, according to the mayor’s office. Mr. Gray touted six straight months of decreasing unemployment in the city and a drop from 10.5 percent unemployment in August 2011, a positive trend that he hopes to sustain despite federal spending cuts set to take effect in January.

Maryland saw its unemployment rate rise by 0.1 percent to 7.1 percent, and Virginia held steady at 5.9 percent in July and August.

Mr. Gray has pointed to workforce development as one of the cornerstones of his administration and frequently touts his “One City One Hire” program, which encourages local companies to hire unemployed city residents in exchange for financial incentives.

Yet unemployment remains high in the city’s eastern wards, at 22 percent in Ward 8, 14.7 percent in Ward 7 and 11.9 percent in Ward 5, according to preliminary figures provided by the D.C. Department of Employment Services. While still high, the unemployment rate has dropped by 2 to 3 percentage points in each of those wards over the past year.

Each of the city’s five remaining wards had an unemployment rate under 10 percent as of August, with Ward 3 faring the best at 2.2 percent.

Mr. Gray reiterated his call Friday to “grow and diversify” the city’s economy because the District’s job situation remains “complex.”

“To back off now would be foolhardy, especially given the very real possibility of devastating federal budget cuts on the horizon,” Mr. Gray said.

In recent remarks, the mayor has touted economic diversification as a way to preserve a robust job market in the District while the federal government looks at sequestration, a series of austere cuts to spending that could place once-reliable government and contracting jobs in the region in jeopardy.

Mr. Gray said this week that the District has made “such substantial gains in reducing unemployment in the city, but one of my fears is that we’re starting to go back the other way.”

The D.C. Council delivered a setback Wednesday to one plank of Mr. Gray’s plan to grow the private sector. In its first legislative session since a long summer recess, it edited out a tax exemption for investors who inject cash into tech startups from a bill the mayor had promoted energetically as a way to bring tech entrepreneurs to the District.

Although city lawmakers passed other tech-related incentives contained in the bill, they decided that it was unfair to provide tax relief to wealthy investors over other sectors of the city populace and criticized open-ended parameters of the bill, such as tax breaks for existing investors instead of just new ones who would be compelled to invest in the District.

Mr. Gray and council member David A. Catania, at-large independent, argued that the council was throwing money away because tech companies will move to business-friendly Virginia and leave the District with no tech-based tax revenue at all.