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September’s unemployment statistics are out, and the numbers for our little corner of the world look fantastic: We’ve dropped below six percent, thankyou very much! At 5.9 percent, the D.C./Maryland/Virginia/West Virginia Metropolitan Statistical Area has the lowest unemployment rate of any large urban area in the country.

That number, though, is a bit deceiving. The number for the District itself, seasonally adjusted, is 9.8 percent—a hair above the national average of 9.6 percent. This isn’t the only metric in which the MSA measurement gives us a skewed sense of the health of the our city—the same pattern shows up in income statistics as well. Why does that matter, if the region is doing well? Aren’t we supposed to be thinking regionally, after all? Sure—but to state an obvious fact that it’s not always clear people realize, D.C. is a separate tax jurisdiction that must finance all its own social services, which is different from, say, the San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont MSA. When D.C. can’t collect income taxes from the people who live here, we can’t share the region’s wealth.

It’s also interesting to compare the District’s unemployment against the nation’s over the last 10 years. D.C.’s rate never got as low as the national average—which hit 3.8 percent in April 2000—and skyrocketed much higher, reaching 12 percent in January 2010, when the number nationally was 9.7 percent. But it’s quickly returned to almost the same level, in large part because of the jobs the federal government has pumped jobs into the local economy. For recovery purposes, it sure helps to have an expansionary federal government in the neighborhood.

National unemployment, seasonally adjusted. (Lydia DePillis)
D.C. unemployment, seasonally adjusted.