Chicago sees spike in Black teens out of school and work, study shows

Experts say the pandemic disrupted the pathways that helped teens get a job or an education after high school. Young adults are “discouraged” about not getting hired, a youth mentor says.

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Three African American teenagers work at a Chicago Park District location

Young people often get their start working through a job with the city of Chicago or the Park District, including these junior labor seasonal workers in Humboldt Park in 2014.

Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times file

Chicago’s youth unemployment rate is higher than the rest of Illinois and the nation at large, according to a new study, demonstrating a sign of the uneven recovery since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though the U.S. unemployment rate has largely recovered since the pandemic, many teens and young adults — particularly people of color — still struggle to find consistent work.

Researchers from the University of Illinois Chicago’s Great Cities Institute looked at employment and school-going rates for youth between the ages of 16 and 24 in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois and the U.S between 2019 and 2022, the most recent data available.

“It seems that many teens are not successfully transitioning from high school to going out and getting a job, going to college, entering a trade or receiving any sort of education,” said Matthew Wilson, study author and an associate director at the Great Cities Institute. “Those pathways were disrupted by the pandemic.”

The researchers found that teens and young adults of color struggled the most to land a job. Even more concerning was the number of youth both out of work and school.

Black 16- to 19–year-olds saw their rates of employment and school-going decline between 2021 and 2022, widening a gap that existed before the pandemic. Some 17.5% of Black teens were out of school and not working in 2022, up from 9.4% in 2021.

“The fact that so many Black teens are jobless is just inexcusable,” said Jack Wuest, the executive director of the Alternative Schools Network, which commissioned the report.

The highest percentages of joblessness among teens in Chicago — nearly 93% — were concentrated around the South and Southwest side neighborhoods of Pilsen, Bridgeport, McKinley Park, Fuller Park and Back of the Yards.

Overall, the researchers found more than 45,000 young people and teens were both out of school and jobless.

But there’s also some good news: The number of Black 20- to 24-year-olds in Chicago who are out of school and jobless fell from roughly 39% in 2021 to almost 30% in 2022.

Wilson said this was because “adults tend to recover from recessions much quicker in terms of their ability to obtain work.”

Out-of-school and jobless rates for 20- to 24-year-olds also vary across Chicago. The lowest number of out-of-school and jobless young adults was recorded in a section of the North Side, at 1.7%, while the highest rate was recorded on the West Side, 48.3%.

Evette Johnson, a youth mentor at Pedro Albizu Campos High School on the West Side, said a lot of the teens she works with “are discouraged when it comes to trying to apply for a job because they aren’t getting hired.”

But job programs like the one she helps run at her school are helping teens who struggled during the pandemic get back on track by teaching them everything from how to draft cover letters to prepping for job interviews.

Wuest of the Alternative Schools Network said more jobs for teens and young adults would result in less crime across Chicago. He points to One Summer Chicago Plus, a job program highlighted in the study, which research showed decreased arrests for violent crimes among participants by 45%.

Wuest praised Mayor Brandon Johnson for his commitment to expanding job opportunities for young people citywide. But Johnson’s expanded summer youth employment program has been slow to take off. He had hoped to double its size last summer but ended up only adding about 2,000 new job openings for people between the ages of 14 and 24.

Johnson aims to add another 4,000 new job openings for young people this summer. The city says that will bring the program size to about 29,000 jobs.

Wuest wants Springfield legislators to help by approving $300 million in funding to expand job opportunities for teens and young adults across Illinois. Lawmakers are expected to finalize their budget by the end of this month.

Anna Savchenko is a reporter for WBEZ.

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