As more youth and young adults in large urban cities, such as Chicago, find themselves unable to find employment a spike in crime may be inevitable.
“As youth we want to work and take care of ourselves and families but if no one will hire us then we are going to do what we have to do to survive, even if that means robbing people,” said Jasmine Davis, a 21 year-old single mom who attends Kennedy King College in Chicago. “We don’t want to hurt nobody but when you are put in a position of survival and especially if you have kids, then you must do whatever it takes to provide for your family.”
According to data by Northeastern Illinois University’s Center for Labor Research, only 10 percent of black teens in Chicago are employed. On the other hand white teens were nearly four times as likely to hold a job, data showed. The center also puts Illinois as one of the top 10 states with the highest unemployment rates for youth.
The Chicago Urban League, a non-profit, social service organization, recently sponsored a youth employment forum, which was attended by more than 200 people including many black, elected officials serving as panelists. They included Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County Dorothy Brown; Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle; Democratic state Senators Jacqueline Col-lins, Kwame Raoul and Kimberly Lightford; Democratic state Representative Monique Davis; and Democratic Cook County Commissioner Earlean Collins.
One by one panelists heard from youth and young adults between the ages 16 to 22 who spoke about how being unemployed has affected them personally and how it affects most black youth overall.
“I am looking for work but no one has called me back. I have gone online to apply for jobs and I also go directly to places to fill out applications,” said Wesley Reynolds, 22. “At this point I am discouraged about looking for a job and ready to do what I have to do. Without a job you will see more robberies by youth. Unemployment forces a person to steal and sometimes kill to survive.”
Chicago Urban League President and Chief Executive Officer Andrea Zopp said she understands why some youth feel like crime is all that’s left to survive.
“I certainly understand where today’s youth are coming from. If you take away their ability to find gainful employment then you leave them no choice and that choice is crime,” Zopp said. “Being unemployed is no excuse to commit a crime but unless we get everyone involved in helping our youth many of them will end up going down the wrong path.”
Last summer the CUL helped put to work 130 youth and this summer it will provide jobs for 129 low-income, youth living in the Woodlawn and Englewood communities on the South Side.
Due to budget constraints the state was unable to fund its Put Illinois Back to Work program this year. The program allowed employers to hire temporary employees including youth for up to 12 weeks and have their minimum wage hourly pay funded by the state. The goal was to give people an opportunity to gain employment skills through working that could later be used to possibly land a permanent job elsewhere.
Brown said the successful program allowed her to hire 400 people over the past two years.
“It was a huge boost for my office given the budget cuts my office has endured. I hope the state can find funding to resume the program because it was a big help to those we employed,” she added.
But Raoul said he doubts if the program will start back up anytime soon.
“As much as I know (Illinois) governor (Pat Quinn) wants to bring it back, the sad reality is the state does not have the revenue to support it,” explained Raoul. “There are so many other obligations the state has right now like making payments to our underfunded pension system that I do not foresee the program resuming at this point.”
But youth said regardless where the money comes from the state needs to make it happen if it does not want to see youth face such dire consequences.
“I have lost a lot of my friends to violence. They had no job and nothing to do but hangout in the streets,” said Romaro Jones, a 19- year-old high school dropout. “I worked last summer at the Chicago Urban League and by doing so I gained valuable work experience.”
Too much attention and resources have been directed towards adults that youth have been pushed to the wayside, said Shawndtrana Campbell, a 19- year-old senior at Collins High School on the West Side.
“No one wants to invest in us and we are the future,” explained Campbell as she fought back tears. “Black kids don’t have the same opportunities as white kids in the suburbs whose parents are ‘well off.’ Most of us (black youth) come from single parent households and we don’t have a lot of money.”
And beyond the ability to be self supportive Marcus James, a 19-year-old senior at Ada S. McKinley Lakeside Services, said by not having a job he does not feel like a man.
“What real man wants to ask him moma for money to buy clothes or go to the movies? I am tired of depending on my mother for things. I want to stand on my feet like a real man and contribute to my own upbringing. But without a job I feel like a loser and certainly not a man.”