Young black men in Chicago: Out of work, out of school, and out of luck

 David Elam, 25, was among those testifying at a recent hearing hosted by the Chicago Urban League about youth unemployment. Elam credited a summer job program with getting him out of a gang. He's now a youth organizer with a group called Fathers Who Care.


David Elam, 25, was among those testifying at a recent hearing hosted by the Chicago Urban League about youth unemployment. Elam credited a summer job program with getting him out of a gang. He’s now a youth organizer with a group called Fathers Who Care.

Chicago isn’t a safe or profitable place for young men of color, especially on the West and South sides. That in itself is nothing new. But a new report on black youth unemployment, coupled with recent sky-high shooting and murder rates, doesn’t leave young black men with many options. Nearly half of all black males in Chicago between the ages of 20 and 24 are neither working nor getting an education.

The statistics also were dismal for the city’s black teenagers. The jobless rate for black 16- to 19-year-olds was 88 percent. Rates for these demographic groups are higher than state or national rates, or than rates in other large cities such as Los Angeles and New York. And all of Chicago’s highest unemployment rates for black teens and young adults were on the West and South sides, just as they are for older adults.

These facts and figures are from a report titled Lost: The Crisis of Jobless and Out of School Teens and Young Adults in Chicago, Illinois, and the U.S. It’s from the Great Cities Institute, an initiative at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs. Its mission is to link academic resources with partners to address urban issues by providing research, policy analysis, and program development. The report was produced for the city’s Alternative School Network in conjunction with the Chicago Urban League.

The jobless numbers provide only half the story. The Chicago Tribune is among those that keep track of the city’s shootings and murders. Its online tally, updated a few times per week, shows daily, monthly, and annual totals of shootings and shooting deaths. So far in 2016, Chicago has had nearly 300 shooting victims and more than 50 homicides (there were nearly 3,000 shooting victims in 2015).

Now compare that map to a map from the Chicago Department of Family & Support Services that shows unemployment rates in neighborhoods throughout the city. Notice the overlap. The areas with the highest number of shootings are the city’s poorest and most segregated areas and the neighborhoods with the highest unemployment rates.

It doesn’t take a genius to connect the dots. Young black men with few options are getting shot in high numbers—and that’s in the middle of the winter. Usually these kinds of totals are more common in the summer, when hot weather drives people outside.

You can blame the high incidence in shootings on easy gun trafficking from other states (true) or the “Ferguson effect” (not true). Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel went so far as to blame the uptick in shootings on an anti-police backlash, saying Chicago police officers have pulled back on enforcing the law—in essence, that that they were forced into a fetal position.

You can talk about illegal drugs, failed schools, malnutrition, substandard housing, and a host of other issues. There’s truth in all of those factors. But the biggest culprit is lack of economic opportunity.

Chicago is no different from many other urban areas that have experienced job flight from the inner city. You used to see large factories throughout the city that employed hundreds of workers. Now, those same workplaces are shuttered or torn down. And not much has been left in their place.

unemployment chart

During my commuting days, I always rode the CTA Green Line along the West Side. The worst sight was the old Brach’s candy factory, which closed its doors in 2001 after 76 years of making StarBrite Mints and Milk Maid Caramels, leaving 1,100 people out of work. The company moved most of its candy manufacturing to Europe.

For years, the old factory sat empty, a broken shell of a once-thriving company. Worse, the 12-story building was awash with gang signs and symbols. It was finally torn down.

The Rev. Michael Pfleger is head of St. Sabina Church in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood on the South Side, near Englewood, the neighborhood on which filmmaker Spike Lee based Chi-Raq. Father Pfleger is a longtime social activist who has spent years speaking out against gun violence. The unemployment rate near St. Sabina is close to 25 percent.

Father Pfleger often shares weekend shooting statistics on his Facebook page, along with commentary. And whatever opinion you have of Father Pfleger, he gets it.

While we fight against corrupt police we must also fight against those who are part of this self-inflicted Genocide that is causing our neighborhoods to live in Fear. Yes, we must demand Jobs, Education, Economic Opportunity, Options and end this Easy Access to Guns, and yes we must Tell the Thousands of Churches that will gather today to pray that Faith without Works is still Dead.

Our family has a friend on the South Side who grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes, the now-demolished high-rise public housing project of 28 buildings that ran along the Dan Ryan Expressway. He and his family have lived in several South Side neighborhoods, yet the only jobs available to him are far away. Currently he has a 2.5-hour commute to a job in a northern suburb. He has to ride a bus, two elevated trains, and another bus to get to work.

But he says it’s worth it. He and his wife, who also works, are scraping together every penny they can (and no doubt creating student loan debt for their son) to send their boy to college—he’s now in his junior year. “He had to go away to school,” our friend told us. “Two of his friends have already been killed.”

He’s traveled to job interviews with even longer commutes, all with complicated multiple modes of public transportation. All of this is because of the lack of employment opportunity in his own neighborhood. “All we’ve got are mostly liquor stores and funeral parlors,” he’s told us.

“Want to curb violence? Give black men a job,” argues Dahleen Glanton in a column in the Chicago Tribune. “If young black men went to work every day, they wouldn’t be out in the streets killing each other,” she writes, citing figures from the Great Cities Institute report.

It means that only about 1 in 2 black men will be able to lift himself or his children out of poverty. It means that nearly half of all black men in Chicago could be on the path to a life without a future, a journey that will likely land them in the Cook County Jail or the Cook County morgue. It means that the fate of African-American men is being cemented into a permanent underclass, a legacy they will likely pass on to their children, their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren.

And we wonder why Chicago has an escalating problem of violence? …

A young man without a job gets to hang out on the corner day and night, whether the temperature is below zero or near 100. He gets to dodge bullets every time he takes a step outside. He gets to hold the hand of a brother or a friend since grade school as that buddy takes his dying breath.

A young man with a job gets to hold his head high when he walks down the street. When his children are afraid, he can look them in the eye and tell them that everything is going to be OK. And a man with a job gets to believe in the American Dream — that if he works hard, he will eventually earn the success he deserves.

You’re wrong if you think the majority of black men would walk away from a chance at that.

In its conclusion, the Great Cities Institute report describes “permanent scars” that lead to conditions that are both a consequence and a precipitating factor in youth unemployment.

This report clearly highlights that youth employment rates are tied to conditions in neighborhoods and cannot be seen as distinct from what is happening in the neighborhoods themselves. The devastation of unemployment, in turn, wreaks havoc on the neighborhood.

Chicago is a great city. But how can it truly be great, when this “tale of two cities” provides such stark comparison in the employment opportunities among young people?

Here’s an economic opportunity that will be happening soon. The Barack Obama Presidential Center is slated to be built on the South Side. There are two locations under consideration. One is Jackson Park, south of the Museum of Science and Industry, a park that is well-used for summertime picnics, basketball games, and many programs in the fieldhouse and other facilities. The other is Washington Park, near the DuSable Museum of African American History, a park with fewer amenities which is in a neighborhood that probably could use more development help than the Jackson Park site. Plus, it’s right near the Green Line elevated train route, making it easy for people to get to work at the Obama library or any of the businesses that are bound to grow around the new site.

I sincerely hope that the Obamas and those responsible for making the site selection will make neighborhood economic development a key factor in their final choice.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on Feb. 7, 2016.

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