Bitter medicine

July 05, 1991

To anyone following Washington Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon's struggle to slash 2,000 mid-level managers from her city's payroll, Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke's effort to prune the size of municipal government must seem almost modest.

Washington, it must be remembered, has nearly 100,000 fewer residents than Baltimore, yet its 48,000-member work force is more than half again as large as Baltimore's. Of the nation's 200 largest cities, the district ranks first in the number of government employees per capita.

Dixon's plan got a major boost this week when the District City Council approved a plan that would begin abolishing jobs in the fall. Most of the workers to be cut are middle-management, middle-aged, mid-career employees whose chances of finding comparable private-sector jobs during a recession are slim.

Yet harsh as this medicine may seem, Washington faces equally harsh budget realities, similar to those confronting big cities across the country: The massive withdrawal of federal aid coupled with an economic slowdown and continuing middle-class fight has left it unable to pay its bills. Without cuts, the district would face a projected budget deficit of some $108 million in 1993.

There is an added irony in Washington's retrenchment. Until Congress granted the district home rule in the 1960s, blacks, who made up the majority of the city's population, were as thoroughly excluded from employment in local government as they were politically disenfranchised. Under home rule, municipal employment became a ladder into the middle class for thousands of black Washingtonians; today one in six district families has at least one member drawing a government paycheck. Clearly, eliminating even a few thousand jobs will have a major impact; in some cases it will mean the difference between a comfortable middle-class existence and outright hardship.

Washington has at last been forced to a recognition that it can no longer be the employer of last resort, even though the great expansion of the city's black middle class over the last two decades must be counted one of home rule's major accomplishments. Now the city faces the bitter pill of belt-tightening austerity and a long period ahead in which it may be hard put to preserve those gains.

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