PI Original Ellyn Fortino Thursday April 28th, 2016, 5:44pm

Cook County Officials Press For Action On Youth Unemployment To Combat Chicago Violence

At a state hearing Thursday, Cook County commissioners urged for action on youth unemployment policies to help address gun violence in Chicago.

Cook County commissioners want state lawmakers to act swiftly on policies to address high levels of youth unemployment in Illinois. They spoke out during a state hearing held Thursday afternoon by the Senate Subcommittee on Issues Impacting Youth.

"We have to do something bold and big, and we have to do it right away," Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin told members of the subcommittee.

Boykin, as well as Commissioners Bridget Gainer and Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, cited recent research from the University of Illinois at Chicago's Great Cities Institute. Youth in Cook County, the research found, are less likely to be employed than their counterparts at the state and national levels and in other highly populated areas in the U.S. The lack of employment is the most dire for Cook County's black youth. 

The elected leaders also pointed to Chicago's uptick in gun violence as an example of why quick action is needed on addressing the shortage of youth employment opportunities.

"The levels of violence in Chicago for this year are already intolerable and only promise to get worse if we don't do something about it," Garcia said. "What do we need? We need political will, and it's not only the state we're asking to step up."

He added: "This is, in my opinion, the greatest urgency that we have faced in the past two decades. And unless we act, and act urgently, regardless of the budget stalemate in Springfield, regardless of the crunches that we're experiencing in our own levels of government, then things will not get any better."

Boykin added that the county is "at a state of emergency point" with regards to gun violence. 

"This gun violence will actually overrun budgets," he said, citing the associated police, emergency response and health care costs.

Panelists also included youth and leaders in the non-profit and faith communities, including Father Michael Pfleger, pastor of Saint Sabina Church on the city's South Side.

He spoke to the importance of targeting employment programs to young, jobless adults who are out of high school.

"If we don't offer options of jobs and opportunities [to this population], we are gonna continue to have (the) violence we have. Because the reality is, people are going to survive," Pfleger said. "And we've got to give them options to survive, or they're gonna find options on the street."

State Sen. Jacqueline Collins (D-Chicago) suggested that "a comprehensive wraparound" agenda, crafted in partnership with federal, state and local governments, is needed to adequately tackle the complicated problem of youth employment. She said businesses, particularly those that get government tax incentives, should also be doing more to address the issue.

Gainer agreed with the importance of getting more private sector partners involved with youth employment efforts.

"This is not just a problem for the government to solve. This is a problem for all of us to solve," she said in remarks before the hearing. 

Also testifying at the hearing were representatives from the Black United Fund of Illinois, which invests in organizations and programs aimed at improving the quality of life for the state's African-American communities. The group wants the state to make a $40 million investment in its proposed initiative called the Henry English Summer Youth Employment Program. 

Henry English, who founded the Black United Fund of Illinois, died last month in a car accident at the age of 73. The Black United Fund of Illinois wants to launch the youth employment program in English's honor. Specifically, the group is asking the state to allocate $40 million to create 32,000 summer jobs in 2016 for low-income Illinois youth aged 16 to 24.

"Henry English, who passed away March 5, had been a ferocious advocate of summer youth employment for many, many years," explained Conrad Worrill, a Black United Fund of Illinois board member and director of Northeastern Illinois University's Jacob Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies.

Nkrumah English, son of Henry English, said Illinois youth employment programs are suffering as a result of the state budget impasse. 

"Last year, state legislation that would have appropriated $20 million to create 12,000 summer jobs was halted in the ongoing budget stalemate," he noted. "Meanwhile, Chicago has had more than a thousand shootings this year, and it's not even summer. Let's get this done. Let's do more than just talk about the violence and lack of opportunities that plague our city and state and find smart solutions in an effort to save our children."

The Democrat-passed budget sent to Gov. Bruce Rauner last year, most of which was eventually vetoed, called for an allocation of $20 million for summer youth programming, according to state Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago). She's the chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Issues Impacting Youth.

Youth unemployment programs have received zero funding during the state budget impasse, she said. 

Last month, the legislature approved a funding bill that would provide over $19 million for youth employment opportunities, Hunter said. The funding, which is part of a $3.8 billion package that would cover higher education and a range of social services that have gone unfunded during the budget stalemate, is awaiting action from Rauner. The governor has threatened to veto the measure because it does not include revenue to cover the spending.

"This bill that we passed a month ago is still sitting on his desk, and so he has not given us any kind of indication as to what he's going to do with that youth employment portion that is in that bill," Hunter said, before asking audience members to "please call the governor's office and ask him to please sign that bill for youth employment."

Advocates, however, say the state should at least double the amount of funding proposed for youth employment programming. 

"We're saying, given the fact that this violence is spreading in an epidemic way in Chicago, over a thousand people afflicted from gun violence, that ($19 million or $20 million) is not enough," Worrill said. "We need $40 million, in honor of the great work that Henry English and many other non-for-profits in the city of Chicago have been engaged in, to help deter this epidemic of violence among our young people in the inner cities, particularly in Chicago. "

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