Nearly half of Chicago's young black men are out of work, out of school

The problem

“My friend would be alive today if he had a job.”

So begins a new report on youth joblessness in the Windy City, quoting a young Chicago woman at a community hearing on the topic.

Titled “Lost: The Crisis of Jobless and Out of School Teens and Young Adults in Chicago, Illinois and the U.S.” and prepared for the Alternative Schools Network, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago explain in their January 2016 report that Chicago youth of color are suffering from an unparalleled drought of economic opportunity compared with peer cities, the state of Illinois and the nation as a whole.

Who’s hurting?

Among the most shocking facts in the report: Approximately 1 in 10 black teenagers ages 16 to 19 in Chicago are employed, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. And the employment rate for Chicago Latinos ages 16 to 19 has plummeted by 42 percent since 2005 – with only 15 percent employed in 2014.

The numbers are disturbing.

Nearly half of Chicago’s young black men ages 20 to 24 are out of school and out of work – a rate four times higher than that for white Chicago men in the same age bracket, and far higher than the same groups in New York City and Los Angeles.

More than a third of Chicago Latinos ages 20 to 24 are out of work.

But joblessness doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Those struggling to gain access to economic opportunities in Chicago also play a part in the city’s epidemic of violent crime.

In nearly every year between 1991 and 2011, the majority of convicted murderers in Chicago were between the ages of 17 and 25, according to city crime data. They were also more likely to fall victim to murder than people in any other age group.

But research shows that access to job opportunities reduces violence among disadvantaged Chicago youth. University of Pennsylvania criminologist Sara Heller found that in Chicago, a mere summer stint at a minimum-wage job resulted in four fewer violent-crime arrests per 100 youth over 16 months.

It’s unsurprising then, that jobs numbers look even worse in communities plagued with violent crime.

In eight Chicago neighborhoods on the city’s South and West sides – East Garfield Park, North Lawndale, Oakland, Fuller Park, Washington Park, Englewood, West Englewood and Pullman – more than two-thirds of people ages 20 to 24 are jobless.


Opportunities disappearing

So who’s to blame?

The city’s public schools certainly deserve credit. But even if young Chicagoans had access to better educational opportunities, it’s a stretch to think good jobs in their communities would simply appear en masse.

A look at the city’s shift away from opportunities for those without college diplomas may provide better insight into the job deserts that have overtaken parts of the city.

For example, industrial jobs once formed the backbone of Chicago’s black middle class. But the city now sits at an all-time low for factory employment. State data show that nearly half of Chicago’s manufacturing jobs have disappeared over the last 15 years.


The manufacturing sector in the larger Chicago area within Illinois’ borders has fallen on similarly hard times. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show the Chicago-Naperville-Arlington Heights metro area has fewer manufacturing jobs today than it had in the worst months of the Great Recession.


Meanwhile, these kinds of jobs are seeing a renaissance in nearby Michigan and Indiana.

A spike in the city’s minimum wage over the last decade may also have played a role in the five-point drop in employment among Chicago’s 16-to-19-year-olds since 2005, including a 10-point employment drop for Latinos in that age group. Research shows that minimum-wage hikes can reduce job opportunities for young blacks and Latinos.

Anecdotal evidence surrounding Chicago City Council’s Dec. 2, 2014, vote to hike the minimum wage by 58 percent over four and a half years suggests this trend will continue.

The owner of the iconic Original Rainbow Cone ice cream shop in Beverley said she would be forced to cut the number of students her business employs over the summer by half. A Panera Bread location cited the hike when it decided to close, as did Home Run Inn pizza when it killed plans to open a new location in Portage Park.

To solve Chicago’s youth joblessness problem, the same tired political rhetoric of more targeted public investment, city planning and carefully branded but ineffective new programs must give way to a real discussion of what drives entry-level and middle-class job opportunities out of the city.

Chicago politicians have peddled the former remedies for years, and conditions have only worsened for the city’s most vulnerable residents.

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