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Training Programs, Social Services Considered D.C. Priorities

James Wright | 2/2/2011, 8:45 p.m.

An organization that serves as an advocate for low-income District residents is cautioning city officials to be as sensitive as possible when dealing with programs that impact the unemployed and those who have special needs.

The Fair Budget Coalition of the District of Columbia, a group of grassroots community organizations, human service providers, faith-based groups and concerned community members, held a briefing on "Workforce Development and Income Supports" on Fri, Jan. 26 at the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest. The gathering of 40 people listened to speakers as they discussed the importance of city-supported work programs and need-based projects.

"District residents are having a lot of problems finding work," said Marina Streznewski, coordinator of the DC Jobs Council in Northwest. "This is the time for the city to invest in programs that help people. This is not the time for the city to turn them away."

Washington faces a projected deficit ranging from $440 million to new estimates by city budget observers of $600 million. D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray has said that there will be painful cuts in the city's budget and that "everything is on the table."

Streznewski, 52, said that the city's resource for job seekers, the One Stop centers, now known as "DC Works! Career Centers are providing a great service to job seekers and employers.

"The One Stop meets the needs of those who want it," she said. "It provides information on available jobs, the latest on job programs and it provides a mechanism for employers to advertise their jobs."

The District's unemployment rate for December 2010 was 9.4 percent, according to statistics compiled by the D.C. Department of Employment Services. It was down 0.4 percent from November 2010's figure of 9.8 percent. The wards with the highest rates of unemployment are Ward 8 in Southeast, with 30 percent unemployment, and Ward 7 at 19 percent. Both wards are located primarily east of the Anacostia River.

The D.C. Department of Employment Services headquarters was recently moved to Minnesota Avenue in Northeast to better serve the residents who live in eastern Washington.

One of the barriers to getting and keeping a job is illiteracy. A widely quoted study conducted by The State Education Agency in March 2007 said that 36 percent of all adults in the District are functionally illiterate, which means that they have problems reading newspapers and maps and filling out employment applications.
Ben Merrion, a board member of DC Learners, an organization dedicated to supporting literacy efforts in the city, said that many unemployed District residents need to learn basic skills to function in the workplace.

"Many residents need to improve their ability to read, write and speak English," Merrion, 40, said.

Merrion said that in 1995, the District provided adult education but lost its federal funding and the interest in it waned. He said that D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams put adult education back into the city budget and his predecessor, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, continued the push for city-supported adult education.

Ernestine McSwain of Southeast enrolled at the Academy of Hope in Northeast to further her education.

"I wanted to make a big change in my life," McSwain, 48, said. "I was motivated to attend the Academy of Hope and things have gotten better for me. My goal is to get my GED and find a job."

She said that she started at Academy of Hope in June of 2010 and has noticed that her children are paying attention to what she is doing.
"They are inspired by me," she said. "I tell them that if I can learn, so can they."

Merrion said that adults who have gone through literacy programs see an increase of 18-25 percent gain in income from those who are on minimum-wage jobs and who have not enrolled in literacy programs.

Some District residents cannot work full-time jobs due to a diagnosed disability. The program that helps D.C. residents receive financial assistance while they are in the process of applying for Social Security benefits is known as Interim Disability Assistance (IDA).

Byron Willis of Southeast is a recipient of IDA, which provides him with $270 a month in cash benefits. He is currently waiting on a final decision on whether he will receive Social Security disability benefits.

He said that IDA provides some sustenance.

"It helps me to stay stable," Willis, 45, said. "Without it, you have nothing. I think the city should continue to fully fund it because people need it."

The Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program is one of the primary vehicles in the city to aid low-income families. The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute in Northeast reported that 17,000 District families currently receive TANF and one in three children belong to TANF families. Statistics on TANF state that the maximum benefit for a family of three (a mother and two children) in the District is $428 or 28 percent of the federal poverty line.

Yaida Ford, a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia in Northwest, said that TANF recipients tend to be individuals who have other issues regarding employment.

"Thirty percent of those who are in TANF have no work experience," Ford, a resident of Southeast, said.

"Ten percent have physical disabilities and 20 percent suffer from mental illness."

McSwain, who participates in TANF, said that it's fine, for now.

"It helps you to buy food and puts clothes on your children's back [along with] health insurance," she said. "TANF has a good jobs program but you have to sell yourself to employers to get a job."

McSwain said that she wants city leaders to strengthen programs to help residents find jobs and to help people who are in need.

"I have been a single mother all of my life and I don't want to be stuck on TANF," she said.

"I want a nice job not a hamburger or chicken job."