City Paper is not for tourists
Great news, Washingtonians: It’s boom time here!
That, at least, is the argument Politico (er, sorry, POLITICO) has plastered all over its homepage this morning, breathlessly heralding the results of a survey 1,011 Americans and “227 Washington, D.C., Elites.” The poll, taken by Mark Penn, finds the D.C. elites think the country is doing much better than the schlubs outside the Beltway. And the accompanying story plays up the expansion of government and the way it’s kept the region afloat economically. “Washington has been largely shielded from the economic downturn, even in 2009, when most states and cities were hit the hardest,” Politico executive editor Jim VandeHei and staff writer Zachary Abramson write under the headline, “Reality Gap.” The crux of the argument:
The massive expansion of government under President Barack Obama has basically guaranteed a robust job market for policy professionals, regulators and contractors for years to come. The housing market, boosted by the large number of high-income earners in the area, many working in politics and government, is easily outpacing the markets in most of the country. And there are few signs of economic distress in hotels, restaurants or stores in the D.C. metro area.
That last bit, though, isn’t actually true.
Unemployment in the District, after all, was at 10.4 percent in May—nearly a full percentage point higher than the national rate of 9.5 percent reported for June. Wander around the city, and it’s not hard to find the “signs of economic distress” Politico blithely dismisses (take Mt. Pleasant, for instance, or lower Georgia Avenue in Park View, or Ward 8—and its median household income of under $30,000 and 553 vacant properties). The problem is, you have to leave the McLean-Bethesda-Chevy Chase-Rosslyn-K Street-Capitol Hill axis of power that dominates Politico‘s world to find them.
The story, and Penn’s analysis, are careful to note that they’re talking about “D.C. elites,” not the city as a whole. (To make the cut for the elite, you had to work in politics or policy, earn more than $75,000 a year and have at least a college degree.) But the headline and the general thesis of the piece—that D.C. is doing just fine, while the rest of the country struggles—winds up contributing to the notion that no one lives here except politicians, lobbyists and overpaid government workers. Which City Paper doesn’t have to remind any of you isn’t true; frankly, Politico doesn’t have to remind you about that, either, since they do note in their story that government employment and contracting only accounts for about 30 percent of the jobs in the entire region. But that blinkered view, that everyone in the city moved here to work in national politics, is pretty common among Politico’s readers—many of whom, after all, did just that. (Then again, Penn’s other appearance in the national media this weekend was a New York Times op/ed urging Obama to double the size of the space budget—an idea that is, actually, out of touch with reality.)
Yes, the region’s economy is doing better than many others. And yes, there are plenty of people with high-powered political or policy jobs who are still flush. But there are thousands of Washingtonians who don’t have a thing to do with the federal government, and thousands of Washingtonians are suffering through the recession just like everyone else in the country. The implicit message of the Politico story is that we’re all vultures here, living the high life as government booms and taxes go up—while honest people everywhere else cut back and suffer.
Can’t wait for the next round of Washington-bashing that inspires.
UPDATE: Turns out I wasn’t the only one in the District whose first instinct on reading VandeHei’s story was to start typing frantically. D.C. Democratic political consultant Chuck Thies e-mailed Ben Smith this morning to note the unemployment rates in Wards 7 and 8 hover near 25 percent—which doesn’t exactly put Washingtonians on Easy Street. Maybe next time, Politico won’t fall into the easy trap of assuming everyone in the District lives exactly the same life as their own well-paid editors and readers do. (But I’m not holding my breath.)