Teen unemployment continues to rise in Chicago

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The economic recovery has done nothing to curb joblessness among Chicago teenagers, according to a new report from the Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University.

Instead, youth employment has plunged, especially among African American young men, and is now at its lowest level in years. And the poorest households are hardest hit: Only 11 percent of Chicago teens in households with an income below $20,000 annually were employed in 2013, compared to 30 percent of teens in households with incomes between $100,000 and $150,000.

The report, jointly prepared with the Alternative Schools Network, is being released today and will be the focus of a hearing on Friday at the Chicago Urban League. It’s the sixth report on the topic published in as many years.

Overall, teen employment has declined dramatically in the past 15 years, from 32 percent employment in 1998 to 13 percent in 2013, according to the report.

The study also links joblessness and lack of schooling, painting an even starker picture of the problem and its link to race: The percentage of 16-to-24-year-olds in Chicago who are both unemployed and out of school—what the report calls “disconnected”–is 28 percent for African Americans, 16 percent for Hispanics and just nine percent for whites.

“In the past year or two, the economy has been moving forward, pumping out more and more jobs, but somehow what we’re seeing is that these kids are moving backward,” says Jack Wuest, executive director of the Alternative Schools Network. “What we’re seeing is that a lot of low-earning and part-time jobs that typically go to kids are now being taken by adults.”

Reversing the trend

In order for the trend to reverse, Wuest says, it’s critical that the government support efforts to expand job opportunities for adolescents at every level.

Yet government support could well be in jeopardy. In 2013 and 2014, Illinois spent $20 million each year on youth employment, with the money awarded to dozens of different organizations, including the Alternative Schools Network. But with new Gov. Bruce Rauner vowing to cut the state’s budget, it’s unclear whether such spending will continue.

Locally, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is hoping to expand his signature One Summer jobs program, which last year created job opportunities for about 20,000 youth in low-income areas of the city.

And in recent years, Chicago Public Schools has sought to overhaul and improve its career education programs and tie them more directly to post-secondary schooling. (See our Catalyst In Depth on career education.)

But the results have been mixed. The district has launched new programs in high-demand career areas. But overall, most students don’t finish a full sequence of career-related classes, only a small percentage of job credentials that students earn lead directly to a job and the district has a limited number of internships available to offer students.

Teen employment creates a ripple effect for the whole city, Wuest points out, and not just in the economic sector. A report by the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab found that young people who participated in the One Summer program were 51 percent less likely to commit violent crimes, and slightly less likely to drop out of school. Beyond that, Wuest says, having a paying job teaches many of the skills necessary to live a successful life.

“Having a job teaches things like the importance of showing up on time, and how to work with other people, and builds self-confidence—these are the skills it takes to be a responsible adult,” Wuest said. “We’re just hoping the state and city continue the expansion, because in a lot of neighborhoods the jobs just aren’t there, and businesses aren’t hiring.”