Black And Latino Chicago Teens Face Barren Job Market, New Report Finds

The difference between life on the streets and having a future is a summer job, several teens testified at a recent Chicago Urban League hearing on the city's high youth unemployment rate.

"Summer jobs took me out the streets," said Juan Cortes, who grow up in Chicago's West Lawn neighborhood and lost friends to gun violence. "When I would be working, they would be on the streets."

Cortes, 18, is lucky. He was able to find employment through the Latino Organization of the Southwest. The nonprofit helped the now expectant father go to school for his commercial driver's license.

But many of his peers, especially black and Latino youths, aren't so lucky. They remain jobless even as the nation's unemployment rate, at 5.6 percent, is at its lowest level since the start of the 2008 recession, according to a new study.

The report called, Frayed Connection: Joblessness Among Teens in Chicago, found that just 13 percent of Chicago teens aged 16 to 19 held a job between 2011 and 2013. That's down from more than 32 percent at its most recent height in 1998 to 2000 and a decrease from 15.6 percent in the two immediate preceeding years of 2008 and 2010, which coincide with the economic downturn.

Nationally, 26.6 percent of teens were employed between 2011 and 2013. Illinois teens fared slightly better than the national average with an employment rate of 27.6 percent between the years of 2011 and 2013. Nonetheless, the state employment rate for teens between 2011 and 2013 was markedly lower than what was seen in the late 1990s, when youth employment levels were at 49.5 percent.

The study, which utilized data from the American Community Survey as well as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Population Survey, paints an even bleaker picture for Chicago's black teens, particularly males. Only 10.5 percent of all black teens in Chicago held jobs in 2012 to 2013, down from 16 percent in 2006 and 2007. And just 9 percent of black teenage males were employed in 2012 to 2013, which is down from 14 percent in 2006 and 2007. Latinos fared better with 21.2 percent holding jobs in 2012 to 2013, while 30.3 percent of white teens were employed during the same time period. According to the report:

In Chicago, Illinois, and the U.S., minority male teens, Black male teens in particular, faced severe challenges in obtaining any type of paid employment. Between 2006-07 and 2012- 13, the employment rate among Chicago's Black male teens declined from 14 percent to just 9 percent; the lowest employment rate among their peers among the major race-ethnic groups. A startling 91 percent of teenaged Black males in Chicago were jobless in 2012-13. In Illinois, the employment rate among Black male teens dropped from 18 percent in 2006-07 to 11 percent in 2012-13. In comparison to their peers nationwide, Black male teens in both Chicago city and Illinois had much lower employment rates in 2006-07 and 2012-13. In the entire U.S., the Black male teen employment rate declined from 24 percent in 2006-07 to 17 percent in 2012-13, a decline of 6.6 percentage points. 

White teen employment in Chicago did not decline as sharply (as Illinois or the nation) since a disproportionate share (indeed most) of the city's resident White teens were enrolled in school while most of the teen employment decline in the city has occurred among out-of-school teens. This issue should be explored more carefully in the future.

Several factors contribute to Chicago's teen employment numbers, said Paul Harrington, the study's co-author and Drexel University's director of the Center for Labor Markets and Policy. The poor pace of job creation in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis is one factor, he explained at the Friday hearing.

Those job losses, Harrington added, hit young people the hardest, particularly in Illinois. The state lost 400,000 jobs over a three-year period and only saw 270,000 positions return. Illinois only created 67 jobs for every 100 lost, ranking the state "43rd in the country with ... its ability to create an economic comeback," Harrington noted.

Compounding the issue is the fact that teens are competing with older workers, he added. Many workers 55 and older who saw their pension "go bust" during the recession were forced back into the workplace and into entry level jobs once reserved for teens and young adults.

"When the economy got beat up, it was really the youngest people that bore the burden of that economic downturn," Harrington said.

Household income is another factor at play when it comes to teen employment numbers, according to the study. Just seven out of 100 black Chicago teens with household incomes of less than $20,000 were employed in 2012 to 2013. Meanwhile, employment levels were greater among Chicago youths with higher household incomes. Employment levels were at 25.1 percent for white teens and 16.6 percent for Latino teens with household incomes between $20,000 and $39,000. Employment rates continued to climb with household income levels. White, Latino and black teens with household incomes of $100,000 to $149,000 had employment levels of 41.1 percent, 29.8 percent and 17.7 percent, respectively. This trend was seen at the state level as well.

"Higher income kids come from households where work is common and that allows a teenager to network in the labor market in ways that low-income teenagers can't," Harrington explained.

Youth testifying before the panel of elected city and state officials shared how the ability to get a job improved their lives. Many testified that summer jobs kept them off the streets, out of trouble and allowed them to contribute to their households. That, they say, is why elected officials should continue to fund -- not cut -- summer jobs as well as create year-round job opportunities.

"I do feel like it is very important that elected officials should provide support for summer youth employment, because it gives youth responsibility," said Mallory Hardin, 23, who works at a Target store in the South Loop. She received job training through the Chicago Urban League.

Jobs, she added, provide youth with more than just money. It teaches them how to dress appropriately for a job interview, and subsequent work, along with ways to become a productive member of society.

David Elam said his job with the Chicago Area Project (CAP) helped turn his life around. Before getting involved with CAP in 2011, Elam turned to the streets because he thought it was a "quicker way to earn a living."

"I wasn't even out on the streets a week before I got into trouble. I knew at that point it wasn't for me," said 24-year-old Elam, who became involved with the group while on probation. Now he works full time as a youth organizer with the West Garfield-based group Fathers Who Care.

"They gave me a chance," he said of CAP, adding that sometimes youth just need to know someone cares.

Harrington called creating jobs for youth an investment that offers "strong economic returns." Working teens, he said, are more likely to attend and graduate from college. They also are more likely to have a job and earn 20 percent to 25 percent more when they enter adulthood, according to Harrington.

"Getting kids jobs when they are 15, 16, 17 years-old matters a lot," he added.

The Alternative Schools Network commissioned the report. ASN's executive director Jack Wuest wanted to show the desperate employment gap facing black and Latino youths.

"It's not hopeless," Wuest said, noting that the testimony shows the benefits of investing in youth employment. "We know it works and there has to be a commitment and prioritizing [of] funding so there is more of these [opportunities], and not less."

Wuest urged the private sector to do more to create jobs for youth because "we know the governmental sector, which has provided jobs ... is kind of the employer of last resort for kids."

Commissioner Evelyn Diaz, of Chicago's Department of Family and Support Services, echoed Wuest's sentiment. She said businesses must understand and see the value in hiring youth.

"I think we need to do a better job of that," Diaz said. "That's the only way we are going to make a dent in that 91 percent number [of unemployed black male teens]. We will never do it with just the public sector alone. It has to be public and private, and it has been a very difficult case to make; to get the private sector to care enough about hiring young people."

Aricka Flowers contributed to this report.