The District of Columbia has experienced an economic and population boom over the last decade, but not all of its residents have benefited.
Its poorest neighborhoods, Wards 7 and 8, have suffered sharp declines in median income and spikes in unemployment while the city overall has enjoyed a more than 20 percent increase in its median income between 2000 and 2012. All across the District, black residents haven't bounced back from the recession, even as other racial groups have met or surpassed pre-recession earnings and employment levels.
The reasons for these racial and geographic disparities are numerous and complex. But one is education (or a lack thereof).
According to one analysis, the high school graduation rate in the city’s poorest wards was 10 percent lower than in D.C. as a whole in 2006. It’s estimated that about 21 percent of the District's working-age population lacks a high school diploma and 20 percent cannot read a newspaper.
It's a problem that a group of students at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy set out to alleviate by offering free adult education and career development services at a library in one of the poorest wards. But to do that, they first had to address a different issue.
"A lot of people might have kids they can’t leave to go to programs like this," says Catherine Lyons, one of the four students who crafted the proposal.
To accomodate those parents, Lyons and her classmates proposed pairing adult literacy and career services with child tutoring. The idea, called “Leveraging Libraries,” won $1,000 and was a finalist at the annual Public Policy Challenge hosted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government and Governing.
Data show that people without a high school diploma earn significantly less over the course of their lives than people who graduate. On average, dropouts earned just under $25,000 a year in 2012 while people who finished earned $35,000.
Lyons says the goal of the program will eventually be to help participants get their GED, but it will start at the most basic levels, helping people gain crucial literacy and numeracy skills.
“What we realized is that adult basic education is the first hurdle people have to get over. People without a high school diploma or equivalent can’t even participate in a lot of career programs because you need a GED to do so,” Lyons says. “So instead of doing another workforce development space, why don’t we think even more basic than that?”
The three students who crafted the idea have spent the past several months speaking with stakeholders and searching for partners all over the D.C. area, including libraries and literacy organizations that already provide these kinds of services.
They're hoping to roll the program out at Dorothy Height Library in Ward 7 within the year, and if it's successful, they want to expand to libraries all over Wards 7 and 8.
But the group first has to secure more funding, potentially from the city’s existing budget for libraries. Lyons says the library has been very receptive to their ideas so far, but if the money through the city doesn't come through, they will likely begin searching for grant funding.
Although many of the program's details have yet to be worked out, one thing is certain: Something must be done about the District’s employment crisis. The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that by 2020, the District’s jobs will require the highest concentration of post-secondary education in the country, which means employment prospects for people without a high school diploma are only getting worse.