Teen job gap shows how far we have to go: Mary Mitchell

Written By By MARY MITCHELL Posted: 02/27/2014, 06:48am

According to a report released last week, 92 percent of Chicago’s black male teens were jobless in 2012.

The study by the Alternative Schools Network: “Trends in Teen Employment in Chicago, Illinois and the United States,” was an appalling snapshot of the predicament young black males find themselves a half century after the height of the civil rights movement.

In 2012, the employment rate in Chicago for all black teens declined to only 11 percent. For Hispanics, it was 25 percent and for White teens, 29 percent.

“Black male teens in Chicago experienced the bleakest employment rates with the number of black male teens with jobs dropping from 10 percent in 2006 to 8 percent in 2012,” according to the report.

“It’s appalling. There used to be summer jobs program for low-income teens across the country, but that ended in 2000,” noted Jack Wuest, executive director of the Alternative School Network.

“[The jobs program] gave young people a chance to get the job skills — showing up on time, following instructions, doing particular kinds of work and having money in their pockets and also helping their families, which is a huge issue. If you don’t have a job, it is spiritually debilitating,” he said.

Wuest gives Gov. Pat Quinn, the state legislature, and the Latino and Black caucuses a lot of credit for providing an additional $14 million last summer that paid for about 10,000 summer jobs.

While the depressed economy can be blamed for creating a much tougher job market, it doesn’t account for the gross disparities that this report uncovered.

Frankly, at what point do we acknowledge the elephant in the room.

Young black males are facing discrimination in the work place that is often camouflaged by superficial barriers, such as being disqualified because of a minor arrest record.

Additionally, these youth have fewer opportunities in their own neighborhoods to gain the skills needed to land that first job.

What this report shows is that as hard as civil rights activists fought for change, some things have remained the same.

“Race is a big factor,” Wuest acknowledged. “In middle class and upper class neighborhoods, there’s a better economy, more consumer spending and more businesses locate there.”

“But overall, youth employment has gone down from 50 percent to 28 percent. What is happening, the economy is so tight, older people have not quit jobs,” Wuest pointed out.

Still impoverished black youth that are hardest hit by this dynamic.

Only 6 out of 100 black teens from households with an annual income of $20,000 were employed in 2012, the study found.

“This persistent lack of job opportunities coupled with continued low projections for teen summer employment make it clear that we must take immediate action to meet the 2014 employment needs of youth,” said Andrea Zopp, president and CEO of Chicago Urban League at a recent hearing before state legislators.

Yet, government can’t possibly provide the number of summer jobs needed to fix this problem.

Private companies must give black youth from low-income neighborhoods the same opportunities as youth from high-income zip codes. When they don’t, the owners of those companies must be held accountable.

This is not just a jobs issue.

The same low-income areas where most of the youths don’t have jobs are the neighborhoods with the highest levels of violence.

There is no excuse for criminal behavior, but these young people want what other teens want.

When barred from finding employment, too many of these young people turn to the illegal drug trade that is at the root of the violence.

Frankly, it is a tragedy — and a shame — that perhaps the biggest employers of youth in poor, urban communities are drug lords and gang kingpins.

This report on the shocking teen unemployment in a prosperous city like Chicago should be a wake-up call.

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