Elizabeth Jones, a senior at Frederick Douglas Academy High School on Chicago’s West Side, testified at a Chicago Urban League event today that teens “actually like jobs” and crave the self-esteem and independence that comes with employment.
Thanks to federal funding and a visit by the non-profit West Side Health Authority to her high school, Jones briefly landed a job. But now federal funds for youth jobs – applied in local initiatives like Chicago summer youth jobs and Put Illinois to Work – have mostly run dry, a problem for the many Chicago youth who have few available support systems.
“When we can’t find jobs, we turn to things we don’t like,” Jones said. “For boys, it will be selling drugs; for girls, it will be prostitution.”
Jones was one of several teens who testified at a Chicago Urban League event on teen joblessness. The event coincided with a report released by the Northeastern University Center for Labor Market Studies that states teen employment dropped nationally from 45 percent in 1999 to 2000 to 26 percent in 2011.
Several prominent local officials, including Chicago Public School Board President David Vitale, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, and Ald. Joe Moore (49th) attended the event.
However, there were fewer representatives of federal government. U.S. Department of Labor Representative Ken Bennett was in attendance and Leslie Combs briefly was in attendance to represent U.S. Rep Jan Schakowsky (D-9).
The lack of more representation from Washington was a problem since the Urban League used the event to push for the federal Pathways Back to Work Act. The bill, introduced by President Barack Obama and sponsored by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), calls for $5 billion in direct job creation and job training. This includes $1.5 billion for summer and year-round employment opportunities for disadvantaged youth.
Jack Wuest, executive director of the Chicago non-profit Alternative Schools Network, emceed the event and lamented that, “Right now, I don’t think this legislation is moving anywhere.”
Because it does not have to balance its budget, Washington – not Springfield or City Hall – is probably the only level of government that can help subsidize teen employment.
“It’s really only the federal government that could come up with the resources that would enable us to do a [teen jobs program],” Moore said after the event. “Anything we could do would only be a drop in the bucket to what the feds can do.”
In the meantime, the problem of teen joblessness grows worse, according to the Northeastern study, especially among low-income black youth. For example, the study found that only one in ten black teens in Illinois who live in households with less than $40,000 annual income had a job in 2010.