Orlando D. Epps, 38, started working at the Census Bureau through
a work-study program while a senior in high school. Upon his graduation
in 1992, the bureau hired him full-time in an administrative job at the
lowest pay grade on the federal scale, GS-1. "I kept time cards, and I
typed memos," he said.
Today, he is at the National Weather Service. He worked his way
up to program analyst at the GS-13 level, which pays $89,000 to
$115,000. He has three children, ages 16, 11 and 9, and bought a
$130,000 townhouse in Waldorf, a suburb in Maryland.
WINNOWING ENTRY-LEVEL WORK
But foot-in-the-door jobs are fast disappearing. Epps left the
Census Bureau in 1997 because the agency laid off his entire section.
Now he is working toward an associate degree in accounting after hours.
"I'm preaching to my kids that they have to get college degrees," he
Indeed, in 1998, one in four federal civilian jobs in the
District was a clerical, blue-collar or technical position. Last year:
one in eight. (They remain a third of all federal civilian jobs
The fall-off is even greater than those numbers indicate. The
federal government began downsizing the workforce in 1991. The cuts fell
disproportionately on low-skill positions that could be replaced by
technology or outsourced.
TWO WORLDS: The 8th Ward is the District's poorest quarter. A third of the residents and nearly half of all children in the ward live in poverty. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Today there are 320,000 federal jobs in the Washington area.
Within the District of Columbia, 55 percent pay $100,000 or more. Many
of the low-level jobs that remain are outsourced to temp agencies.
Michael Ponger, 30, grew up poor in the District. In 2010, he
landed a clerical job in the U.S. House of Representatives. A couple
decades ago, the position would have been a prize for someone with only a
high-school diploma, securing a place in the middle class.
Times have changed. The government eliminated and outsourced most
of its clerical jobs in Washington. Ponger had been hired by the
Midtown Group, an employment agency that has won $20 million in federal
contracts since 2003. He made $12 an hour taking inventory of equipment
and supplies at the offices of lawmakers who lost re-election, and later
did inventory for the federal court.
After 10 months, the job ended and Ponger moved on to a
$9-an-hour position as a chef's assistant. The restaurant closed in
August. He grabbed a "very part-time" security post; lately he has been
getting more hours and hopes the position will become full-time. He's
making $12 an hour.
"I can't go for no more $9 an hour jobs, because that's not going
to pay the rent. And after you pay taxes, it's even shorter," he said.
A trim man with a pencil mustache, Ponger lives in a one-bedroom
apartment in Washington's 8th Ward with his wife, Stephanie, 31, and
their 5-month-old son, Michael Jr. They pay $750 a month in rent and
sometimes need help from family to get by. She is a suite attendant at
the Washington Nationals stadium during baseball season, and styles hair
for extra cash.