It's hard to prove the exodus from D.C. has helped Md.

The Economy

February 17, 1997|By Jay Hancock

MARYLAND'S biggest statistical mystery of 1996 wasn't Brady Anderson's home-run anomaly.

It was a strange divergence in the state's employment statistics, one that may spell a bittersweet, early warning not only about Maryland population trends but about the future of the country's capital.

About 2.7 million Marylanders were working at the end of 1996, almost 100,000 more than had jobs at the start, according to reports based on household surveys. It was stupendous, 4 percent growth, equal to Maryland's best showing from the kinetic 1980s and the fulfillment of ardent political wishes from Lexington Park to LaVale.

The problem: Those rosy findings are directly contradicted by another jobs report, a government indicator based on surveys of employers, not households. Maryland-based companies added only 10,000 jobs last year, not 100,000, this report says.

The difference is huge, even by the fudgy factors of government economic surveys. And it puzzles even the people in the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation who collect the data.

Some of the job gap can be explained away.

Thousands of Marylanders commute to work in Washington and nTC Virginia, and when surveyors call them at home and ask if they're employed, the commuters say, "Yes." But if they work in Washington or Reston, their jobs aren't counted in the Maryland employer survey.

So one possible reason for the gap: Tens of thousands of Marylanders suddenly got hired in the healthy Northern Virginia economy last year.

But that can't bridge the entire statistical canyon, economists believe, or even most of it. Nor can other factors, such as counting soldiers, sailors and the self-employed in one survey but not the other.

The biggest factor of all, one analyst guesses, may lie in another cross-border development, one as political and civil in nature as economic.

Why might the number of employed Maryland residents have suddenly spiked last year? Look to Washington's accelerating decay, its budget crises, its control board takeover, its crime, its police, its struggling schools.

People are leaving the District. They're keeping their Washington jobs, but they're moving to Prince George's, Montgomery, Frederick, Charles counties. They're substantially boosting the roster of employed Marylanders even as the number of Maryland-based jobs grows more sluggishly.

This, at least, is Pat Arnold's hypothesis. "People are changing their residence, and Maryland is benefiting from that," said Arnold, Maryland's director of labor market analysis.

Arnold can't prove his hunch. He mentioned it to me in a conversation speculating on the job gap.

Nobody can prove it. The U.S. Census Bureau is years behind present reality, and municipal planners are still adjusting their own views of how Washington's problems will play out. Most of the 1996 tax returns, which will ultimately help resolve the mystery, haven't been filed yet.

But if you check for evidence of recent, accelerating district flight, it's there. "I would say that's a correct assumption," said Donald Bobrow, owner of Century 21 AAA Realty in Clinton, Md. AAA deals with homes in D.C. and Maryland's Prince George's and Charles counties, and "certainly the impression I am getting from my agents" is that a Washington exodus is helping to drive suburban Maryland's vibrant home market, he said.

"The standard reasons we see are better schools, less crime, and they want their kids to grow up in a place where they're not worried about stray bullets," Bobrow said.

Washingtonians have been moving to Maryland for decades. Net migration into the state from the District was 138,000 between 1980 and 1994, according to the Maryland Office of Planning. And the migrants keep rising; in 1994, the most recent year for which results are available, 12,500 more people moved into Maryland from Washington than vice versa.

That was the most in at least 15 years.

In Charles County, on Washington's Southeastern flank, "There's certainly no doubt that we're getting a lot of residential growth," said planning director Steve Magoon. "We are in receipt of a lot of young families, young couples that are married and starting families."

Exactly where they're coming from, Magoon doesn't know. But, he says, "There's certainly plenty of anecdotal evidence around the state that people are moving out of urban areas, primarily because of crime issues, education issues."

State tax tills are another place that might give clues about the employment puzzle.

If Maryland really did receive an accelerated burst of District-employed Washington refugees last year, it would show up in tax receipts. D.C. employers would have sent payroll-tax checks here.

In fact, Maryland tax receipts swelled 7.5 percent from July through December, said Ann Franklin, economist for the state Board of Revenue Estimates.

"We have seen Maryland income tax withholding really take off in the last half of calendar 1996," she said. "It's on a pace more consistent with the household survey than the [employer] establishment survey."

Like other analysts, Franklin cites other reasons that could explain the job gap and the revenue bulge. And she notes that both the household and the employer job surveys are almost always subject to substantial revision.

But even if they're all wrong, Washington's difficulties proceed. And the migrants increase.

Pub Date: 2/17/97

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