What can we do to stop economic inequality?

What can we do to stop economic inequality?

The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute recently released a report documenting the economic disparities between white and black workers in the District, highlighting a history of exclusion and disenfranchisement that has put today’s black workers at an economic disadvantage.

The District’s black residents are seven times as likely as white residents to be unemployed, despite actively looking for work, according to the report, which also shows that the unemployment rate for the city’s black workforce has risen higher than it stood during the Great Recession in 2007 (12.4% compared to 9.4%).

D.C. also has a long history of workforce development initiatives and organizations that work on the grassroots level to empower black workers. What is working to improve employment prospects for black people in the District? And what needs to change?

Produced by Richard Cunningham


  • Doni Crawford Policy Analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute
  • Scott Perry Program Manager at Edgewood/Brookland Family Support Collaborative
  • Connie Spinner Principal and CEO, Community College Prep Academy; @ccprepacademy


  • 12:00:03

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll meet the creative forces, who are bringing James Baldwin's "Amen Corner" back to the District. But first Washington D.C. is among the most expensive cities to live in. Living in this area cost 19 percent more than the national average. That fact hits especially hard for black workers living within the District. In a recent report the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute found that black workers here are seven times more likely to be unemployed than their white peers. Researchers also cited long standing systematic barriers that keep black workers at an economic disadvantage.

  • 12:00:41

    KOJO NNAMDIBut some local organizations are working to bridge the inequality gap with programs that provide certification to unemployed, underemployed and returning black residents. Joining me in studio is Doni Crawford, a Policy Analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. Doni Crawford, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:00

    DONI CRAWFORDThank you for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:01:01

    NNAMDIYou are the author of this new report from the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. Can you kind of summarize your main findings?

  • 12:01:08

    CRAWFORDSure. Often when we talk about prosperity in D.C. we talk about how it's booming for workers. But what that does is it really masks the staggering inequality that we see for many black workers here in the District. And as you said black workers are the only racial group of people that have not fully recovered from the recession. So the unemployment rate for black workers is actually a lot higher than it was in 2007. It's about 12.4 percent. And then when we look at median household income we see that the average median household income for black families is about $45,000 and it hasn't improved over the last decade. But for white households it's three times higher and has been improving.

  • 12:01:49

    CRAWFORDAnd when we talk about affordability in the District and who gets to live here and who's displaced that directly connects to the lack of changes in income. And one of the things that we really wanted to do with this report was not just speak about the economic racial disparities. But say that they were by design, and provide that historical context that deep history of exploitation, racism and discrimination and I'm happy that we were able to do that in this report.

  • 12:02:17

    NNAMDIHow far have you been able to go back to provide that historical context here?

  • 12:02:24

    CRAWFORDWe really looked at, of course, the period of enslavement. We start off the history with a quote from Frederick Douglas, who talked about the fact that D.C. was the citadel. It was the hub for slavery and enslavement. And then post-enslavement we wanted to show that newly freed black workers were segregated to jobs that were very low wage. The emergence of tip work actually came out of that. And Reverend Barber wrote a really great essay for Politico that we incorporated just showing that ...

  • 12:02:56

    NNAMDIYou should say who Revered Barber is -- William Barber.

  • 12:02:58

    CRAWFORDReverend Barber is -- he was recently on one of the shows, but he's been a leader in the Civil Rights movement for many years. He works on the Poor People's Campaign currently. And that was the first time that I learned about the history of tip work and the fact that white employers after the Civil War here in the U.S. didn't want to pay newly freed black workers a fair wage. And today we see the direct connections of that, because black people make up a huge percentage of tip workers here in D.C. And those workers often are not paid what they should be paid. So there's a lot of wage theft that continues to this day.

  • 12:03:33

    NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Connie Spinner, the Principal and CEO of Community College Preparatory Academy. Connie Spinner, thank you for joining us. Good to see you again.

  • 12:03:42

    CONNIE SPINNERIt's a pleasure.

  • 12:03:43

    NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Scott Perry. He is the Program Manager at Edgewood/Brookland Family Support Collaborative. Scott Perry, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:03:52

    SCOTT PERRYThank you for having me.

  • 12:03:53

    NNAMDIHow do you feel about the conclusions of this report? Do you believe that black workers are exploited here in the District of Columbia?

  • 12:03:59

    PERRYOh, absolutely. I found the report sad, but not surprising. It really quantified a lot of the experiences that I have with the clientele that I work with. I work with unemployed and underemployed D.C. residents and help them find meaningful employment in D.C. And it really articulated all of the challenges that I'm facing with my population. Especially what percentage of my population are really qualified for entry level positions. Don't see themselves having anything higher than entry level positions. Living paycheck to paycheck. So it really emphasized everything that I go through every day.

  • 12:04:38

    NNAMDIConnie Spinner.

  • 12:04:39

    SPINNERI would say from my perspective I'm one of nine adult charter schools in the District of Columbia. We work specifically with the populations that you all are discussing. I think that there are a number of things that contribute. And on the surface it's very easy to say, "It's racism." And I'm not saying it's not. But I think we have to look at the unique factors that come to play here in the District of Columbia. The first thing is we are a knowledge based economy. And in order to compete in a city where more than 60 percent of the population has a bachelor's degree, you have to have some kind of advanced certification or training. Secondly, we're a university town. And thousands of young people come from across the United States to the District of Columbia to go to school. And they don't want to go home.

  • 12:05:39

    SPINNERSo they take entry level jobs for which they are overqualified. So our average high school graduate is competing with a college graduate from AU or Georgetown or Howard for an entry level receptionist job. Thirdly, gentrification has led to people being moved out all over the world in large cities. It's not just Washington. You can't go to a major city where they aren't experiencing it, but we've got it on steroids. And so our poor people and our under educated people have been pushed to Ward 7 and Ward 8 and concentrated.

  • 12:06:23

    SPINNERAnd wherever you concentrate poverty and need. You also take away the opportunity to move forward. And finally we have had years of an unperforming K-12 system. So if we're not willing to look at a major multipronged strategy for workforce development here in the District, we're not going to be able to make inroads for African Americans here at all. And incidentally, America is going to have to do that. We're just in front of the curve with our folks.

  • 12:07:00

    NNAMDIFunny that you mention it at the same time as the University of the District of Columbia is now saying that you can get an education at this institution for a four year cost of $60,000 that will virtually guarantee you employment in the District of Columbia. That's another story, another program. We'll probably discuss it later. But, Doni Crawford, in your report, you write quoting here, "Institutional racism is present at every stage of employment." Which institutions prevent black workers from closing the wealth cap and what exactly are those institutions doing?

  • 12:07:33

    CRAWFORDSo there I was actually referencing like structural racism and the fact that we see black workers being discriminated against in the hiring process, not receiving just compensation, having less access to unions and employer provided benefits. So even once they get the job there's also discrimination that pervades through pay and the benefits that they have access to. And I also wanted to add to Connie's point if I could because we looked at education as well. And my colleagues are more of the experts there. But two of the points that I wanted to bring up was just we know that a lot of black students don't have access to the resources here in the District. They're underfunded as you said in Wards 7 and 8.

  • 12:08:18

    CRAWFORDSeventeen of the twenty schools that faced really steep budget cuts last year were in Wards 7 and 8. So that's a direct connection. But at the same time when they do have access, we also found that black college graduates have an unemployment rate that's three times higher than the white college graduate unemployment rate. So, again, they are still dealing with a lot of these issues as well. And that ties back to the structural racism that I was talking about.

  • 12:08:46

    NNAMDIAnd we have two callers who want to deal with education. Let's start with Andy in Washington D.C., who may reflect what you just said, Doni. Andy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:08:55

    ANDYHi. I just wanted to -- this show really spoke to me. I have a PhD in social work. I'm unlicensed, because you have to go through a period of time of supervision. So I applied for a job with the District government. They claimed that I was at the point of selection. Then they advised me that I had to give them eight different pieces of documentation to prove that I was a District resident. Then even after I did that they said that the agency or whoever was doing the background check did not finish my background in time for me to start by February the 18th. So I lost out on the job.

  • 12:09:38

    ANDYNow I've never been in trouble. I've done everything I'm supposed to do. I'm working two full time jobs just to maintain my residence, you know, so I can pay my mortgage and everything. And you get to a point that it's like not fair. I'm a person of color. I've checked all the boxes. I've done everything I'm supposed to do, but yet the doors continue to close to me even as a District resident when I'm supposed to get some type of (unintelligible).

  • 12:10:07

    NNAMDIOkay. You're breaking up on us. But you've said more than enough, Andy, that I can ask Doni Crawford and our other guests to respond if they'd like to.

  • 12:10:14

    CRAWFORDThe only thing I would add to that is I know that is not rare. We've been hearing that in a lot of the performance oversight hearings that the District has about the Department of Employment Services in some of the areas where they're a bit slow when it comes to making sure people have access to both job training and the ability to get those jobs. And just as a plug that if she or other people would like to bring those findings to the District that hearing is on March 4th. So we're hoping to resolve that further as we go into this new budget season.

  • 12:10:50

    SPINNERYeah, I think you're absolutely hitting the nail on the head that Washington is a city of new Washingtonians. People come to this city from all over the country. The reality is people hire people they know. People hire people, who they have some sense that somebody knows and can validate for them. We're of highly relational city. And folks come in and again they're competing in a city where the federal government, the District government, hospitals and universities dominate. And where folks hire people that they believe have a track record. Folks comes here thinking, "Well, if I get to the nation's capital I'm going to be first to get hired." There is a strong need for a major strategic plan for the city around workforce.

  • 12:11:53

    SPINNERAnd it's got to look at housing. It's got to look at education. And it's got to look at workforce development. And so until we're able to look at that big chunk in that way we're going to continue to have see these steps -- we keep trying to figure out how we can solve individual problems. We can't do that. What we can do is have a strategy that makes it easier for everybody to access.

  • 12:12:20

    NNAMDIWe want to stay with education for a second, because that's what Mary in Chantilly wants to talk about. Mary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:12:26

    MARYYes. Okay, thank you. I listened to your introduction to the program and I recognize that all these historical injustices from over the centuries. In today's world a person needs to have an education. And why is the high school completion rate so low? That's really key to me. Finishing high school and -- you know, having literacy skills, math skills, critical thinking skills. And I know the social environment in some communities is really bad with guns and drugs, but it's a whole package. But I just feel like education is so important to so many people. Without that, I don't see how one can really advance. And I know some of your other speakers, you know, they have that education.

  • 12:13:16

    NNAMDIWell, allow me to have Scott Perry respond about what his organization the Edgewood/Brookland Family Support Collaborative is doing.

  • 12:13:24

    PERRYOnce again we are positioned to help D.C. residents, unemployed and underemployed find full time or part time employment at the District. And one of the things we push, we're always constantly pushing education, vocational attainment, some type of paid work, some type of documentation, some initials behind your name that will help you more marketable to get a higher wage job. So we're always pushing education. We're always pushing the abundance of vocational training programs that exist in the city.

  • 12:13:52

    PERRYThe challenge is the population that we work with are oftentimes short term thinkers. And they have a need for cash now. And they look at school education, training programs as a delay to them meeting their immediate needs. And so we had to have constant conversations, coaching sessions, one on ones to get them to think long term, to get them to see the importance of investing in themselves for the long run because you're not going to survive in this city working at a fast food restaurant or working in a retail store.

  • 12:14:28

    PERRYIt's not going to happen. People are constantly being forced not only Wards 7 and 8, but also, you know, what a lot of people call Ward 9, PG County. Being forced out of the city where the benefits -- social benefits, government benefits are not the same, not as extensive and then they're suffering in the long run just in another jurisdiction. So we're constantly -- my staff and I are constantly working with people to encourage them to think long term and see the value of investing in themselves.

  • 12:14:56

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we will continue this conversation. Still taking your calls. Are you a recipient of community or federal assistance due to unemployment? Are you receiving training to rejoin the workforce? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:15:27

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing a recent report from the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute that points out that blacks in the city are seven times more likely to unemployed than their white counterparts. Doni Crawford is the Policy Analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, who is the author of that report. She joins us in studio along with Scott Perry, Program Manager at Edgewood/Brookland Family Support Collaborative. And Connie Spinner, the Principal and CEO of Community College Preparatory Academy. We're talking your calls at 800-433-8850. Here is Perry in Brightwood. Perry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:16:05

    PERRYYes. Thank you for taking my call. I'll try to get through as quick as possible. The panel is so on point it's scary, stole my thunder on many things. But one of the issues I wanted to share with you is this, that in D.C. where we have advocates -- I'm an advocate with Cynthia's Worker's Right Group here in D.C. where we have advocates on behalf of workers, who have suffered non-payment of overtime, misclassification and the like. Two issues. One the majority of those workers who come as our caseload -- for example, at the worker's clinic they're held by the Washington Race Committee 90 percent of those who come in every week, every week are people of color. And the issue is our Council doesn't have the political will to stand up against some of the entities that toward wage theft and the like.

  • 12:17:13

    PERRYAnd the problem the Department of Employment Services fail to enforce the law. So employers have no problem just stealing workers' wages and then retaliating. And there is just absolutely no enforcement of our grand Wage Theft Prevention Act.

  • 12:17:32

    NNAMDIDoni Crawford, I know that this study also looks at workers in the service industry. But was wage theft a significant factor in the differences we're talking about?

  • 12:17:40

    CRAWFORDYes. We looked at that on the recommendation side -- because actually, I know Perry, I'm in a coalition with Perry -- And we've still seen a lot of instances of wage theft in the District. And one of the things that I really liked that Council Member Silverman did last year is she turned a lot of DOE's money for job training programs from recurring to one time. And that's supposed to incentivize them to actually make sure that they're getting money out the door and addressing the issues that Perry so eloquently described. And that's -- yeah. I'll just end there.

  • 12:18:15

    NNAMDIConnie Spinner, what kinds of courses does your organization offer to prepare people to enter the workforce?

  • 12:18:20

    SPINNERWe focus on two or three areas that are primary for us. First we looked at the demographic workforce horizon for the District. We discovered that there are over 630,000 jobs in this region that require Microsoft capability. So we do Microsoft Office Suite 12 hours a day. An individual can have a bachelor's degree and not know Excel and can't get an analyst job in the D.C. government. So upscaling and rescaling becomes an important skill and not just for the poor, but for the educated. We focus in our second area on IT. We are the largest provider of CompTIA A Plus Help Desk Certification that allows an individual to enter the field at 45K a year.

  • 12:19:20

    SPINNERHowever, the trick is that we need to get people staying in their education and training mode. They think, "If I get this first certification it's all over." No. You have to then move to the community college or to some post-secondary institution to keep those skills up. The next area that we're focused on is health tech and we're developing that now in conjunction with the health industry.

  • 12:19:53

    SPINNERHowever, across all of these is a focus on academics. If you leave high school reading at less than an 11th grade level, doing math at less than a 9th grade level, if you're not computer savvy and you don't know how to learn online you are still behind the eight ball. So basic things -- the new basics are very different. And our students and our adults don't know that.

  • 12:20:25

    NNAMDIHere now are two opinions. Trish called in to say that the minimum wage is not enough to live on and until it is the employment problem will never be solved. And then there's Thomas in D.C. Thomas, your turn.

  • 12:20:40

    THOMASHello, thanks for taking my call. I'm a former restaurant industry worker. And I have lots of friends in the industry. And while I agree with the intention of the rise in the minimum wage and application of the minimum wage to restaurant workers, I sympathize with what the Council and the government are trying to do. However, the unintended consequence of raising the minimum wage and applying that to tip workers and restaurants has actually depressed the hiring of entry level workers.

  • 12:21:13

    THOMASAnd it was said earlier on the program here if I'm an employer and I have to pay someone $15 an hour plus benefits, you know, in excess of $20 an hour in reality, why would I hire an entry level person uneducated when I could get easily a college graduate for that amount of money. The unintended consequence of rising minimum wage has actually hurt people, who are in the entry level job market. It's going to depress hiring not increase it.

  • 12:21:42

    NNAMDIWell, whether or not it depresses or increasing hiring, Doni Crawford, I think what it attempts to address is the cost of living in this region in general and in this city in particular.

  • 12:21:53

    CRAWFORDRight. And we actually have a report coming out that shows that that's not the case. That increasing the minimum wage hasn't led to any decreases on hiring. So stay tuned for that. We not only support increases it the minimum wage, but we also support increases in the living wage, which a little bit higher than minimum wage. Right now I think it's going to be like 50 cents higher. So we hope that the District will actually increase the living wage. MIT actually estimates that for one worker a living wage should be closer to $18 an hour. And if a worker has like two children then it should be a little over $33 an hour. And that would really help to make sure that a lot of black workers can stay in the District, because we've already talked about just the numbers that are seeing high rates of displacement.

  • 12:22:42

    NNAMDIBefore we go, what else -- and I'm going to put this to each of you, what else can the city to balance the scales between black and white workers here in the District or what is the next step that you see? I'll start with you, Connie Spinner.

  • 12:22:55

    SPINNERGreat. Thanks. I think again, I'm going to be redundant. We've got to have a strategy that focuses on first of all high quality, high performance education K-12. And the understanding being imbedded for young people from the very beginning that they're going to have to continue to educate themselves for the rest of their lives if they're going to stay in this city.

  • 12:23:25

    SPINNERSecondly, we've got to, for our adults who didn't get the first go round, provide the kind of high quality, high intensive computer base learning that allows them to be able to make that step. And it's a combination of technology and well informed employment based academics.

  • 12:23:49

    SPINNERAnd thirdly we've got to tackle the housing challenge. We can't keep the old public housing that we had. It's not an either or proposition. We've got to look at building in the opportunity for someone to have working class poor housing while they're getting ready to move to the next level. So that's going to take a major workforce strategy.

  • 12:24:17

    NNAMDIScott Perry.

  • 12:24:18

    PERRYWell, I think the first caller highlighted it. Here's a woman with a PhD who was asked for eight different forms of documentation to prove that she's a D.C. resident. Can you imagine a 12th grade or a high school graduate with minimum work experience, who has to face the safe challenges to access all of the free training programs that DOES has. So we need D.C. government to make the accessibility to these training programs streamline, less complicated, more consistent, easily communicated so that people can actually tap into and won't get frustrated by having to make repeated trips to UDC or DOES or any other vocation training program just to get admitted.

  • 12:24:59

    NNAMDIAnd Doni Crawford, to you I'm going to parrot the question that John in Arlington wants to ask but we don't have time to put John on the air. What policy recommendations is the report making?

  • 12:25:10

    CRAWFORDWe have a lot of policy recommendations. But I'll just focus on one that we haven't talked about yet, because we've already talked about wage theft and those things. Returning citizens -- 96 percent of returning citizens are black. And 95 percent of returning citizens are males. So we know this is a black men issue here in the District. And there is a lot that they can do to make sure that there is fair policies around expungement of prior offenses as well as making sure that they have access to occupational licenses to be able to get the jobs that they need that pay minimum or living wages. And there's several bills out there right now that Council Member McDuffie, Council Member Allen have to try to make this process more equitable and not basically repunish someone that has already served their time.

  • 12:25:55

    NNAMDIDoni Crawford is a Policy Analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute and author of the report we're discussing. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:26:03

    CRAWFORDThanks for having me.

  • 12:26:04

    NNAMDIScott Perry is the Program Manager at Edgewood/Brookland Family Support Collaborative. Scott, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:26:09

    PERRYThank you.

  • 12:26:10

    NNAMDIAnd Connie Spinner is the Principal and CEO at Community College Preparatory Academy. Connie, always a pleasure.

  • 12:26:15


  • 12:26:16

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break, when we come back, we'll meet the creative forces who are bringing James Baldwin's "Amen Corner" back to the District. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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