PI Original Ellyn Fortino Tuesday September 29th, 2015, 4:36pm

High Unemployment Rate Maintains Grasp On Illinois African-American Communities, New Census Data Shows

Progress Illinois looks at how African Americans in Illinois fared last year in terms of unemployment rates, based on the latest American Community Survey numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau.

New figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show that the African-American unemployment rate in Illinois improved last year, but it was still about three times higher than the rate for whites.

At the county level, African Americans were at least twice as likely to be unemployed last year than whites in all Illinois counties for which data was available.

Howard Peters with the Springfield Urban League said the unemployment figures, which were released earlier this month as part of the 2014 American Community Survey, were not surprising.

"These are numbers that have been persistently disparate for quite some time," he said. "African Americans and (other) minorities here in Springfield and statewide continue to be disparately impacted by unemployment."

Statewide, the overall jobless rate in Illinois was 8.1 percent last year, down from 9.5 percent in 2013, according to the Census Bureau. 

The Illinois African-American unemployment rate fell from 21.4 percent in 2013 to 18.1 percent in 2014. By comparison, the rates for non-Hispanic whites were 7.1 percent in 2013 and 6 percent last year. Hispanics had an 8.8 percent unemployment rate in 2014, down from 10.8 percent in 2013.

Illinois had a higher 2014 African-American unemployment rate than the national average.

Nationwide, the overall unemployment rate was an estimated 7.2 percent last year. It was 13.2 percent among African Americans, 8.4 percent among Hispanics and 5.8 percent among non-Hispanic whites.

Bob Bruno, professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, weighed in on the factors that could be contributing to the persistently high African-American unemployment rates in Illinois and nationwide.

"I think there's a real need to consider that race is, in fact, still an important determinant of employment opportunities, meaning that employers may have preferences for hiring that favor non-African-American men" in particular, he said.

Other possible factors include the disproportionately high incarceration rates impacting African Americans, particularly men, according to Bruno. Having a criminal history is often a barrier to employment for formerly incarcerated individuals.

"The combination of race, of incarceration, going a period of time as an young adult not having a work history, coming out of a recession where there's going to be great demand for a modest number of jobs, and therefore you're going to have people competing for these entry-level jobs with higher skills that are probably required for the job -- I think all those things could contribute to keeping down the employment rate for African-American men," Bruno added. "I don't know whether these facts would be the same for African-American women."

Some Illinois counties had larger black-white unemployment gaps than others, according to the Census Bureau survey, which includes employment, income and other information for areas with populations of 65,000 or more.

Last year, African-American jobless rates were highest in counties like Vermilion and Winnebago, at an estimated 31.9 percent and 28.9 percent, respectively. They were lowest in counties such as St. Clair, 9.3 percent, and Will, 10.6 percent.

In those counties, the highest non-Hispanic white unemployment rate was 8.3 percent in Vermilion County, which had an overall jobless rate of 11.8 percent last year.

Unemployment rates in Sangamon County -- home of Springfield, the state's capital city -- were 12.8 percent for African Americans and 6 percent for whites last year. Sangamon County's overall unemployment rate for 2014 was an estimated 7.2 percent.

Peters said African-American unemployment rates in Springfield and across Illinois are likely much higher than the Census Bureau's estimates.

That's because the unemployment rates do not factor in people who are jobless and not actively searching for work.

"I think a true unemployment number is critical to really see the impact of joblessness in a community," Peters said. "If we have the correct numbers, we can really start looking at human services, education and employment development in a realistic way."

"We encourage our local officials, as well as the governor, to really do a hard look at the real numbers and how they impact some of the most vulnerable populations in our communities," he stressed.

To better address high African-American unemployment rates across Illinois, Peters said job training and development programs should place a greater focus on technology and technological advancement.

"Gone are the times that we can simply rely on someone getting their equivalency degree, [meaning] if they haven't finished high school, and then moving forward to some kind of basic vocation. Now, [a] vocation includes technological training and advancement," Peters explained.

In an effort to provide communities hard hit by unemployment with greater access to technology training and equipment, Peters called for more partnerships between non-profits working on employment issues and "like-minded, for-profit entities."

"We should not have a population out there in the workforce that doesn't know how to turn on and off a computer, that doesn't know to engage in basic computer programs like Word and Excel, and things like that," he stressed.

The racial unemployment gap was also substantial in Cook County, according to the survey, which found that the 2014 jobless rates were an estimated 19.5 percent for African Americans, 9.2 percent for Hispanics and 6.2 percent for non-Hispanic whites.

State Rep. Will Davis (D-Hazel Crest) represents south suburban Cook County. Specifically, his 30th district covers Dixmoor, Harvey, Homewood, Riverdale, Posen and other nearby communities.

He said more business development is needed in south suburban Cook County. But attracting businesses there can be difficult, Davis explained, because the area borders Will County and northwest Indiana, which both have tax rates that are "better for businesses."

"That's not to say that those companies that are already here are leaving necessarily," Davis said. "But if we want to do a better job of being able to bring businesses to south Cook County, then we're needing the county board to do something better about the tax rates for businesses, where they are substantially higher for businesses in Cook County versus Will County."

"Naturally, if we have business development, then we can work on the unemployment rate, particularly of African Americans, which are probably more populated in south Cook County than any other part of Cook County," the lawmaker added.

Two long-proposed Chicago Southland projects, a third Chicagoland airport and the Illiana Expressway -- a 47-mile tollway that would connect Illinois' I-55 to Indiana's I-65 -- would also be helpful in improving local African-American unemployment rates, Davis said.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, however, stopped progress on those and other major infrastructure projects upon taking office in January, citing the need for further review. The two proposed projects are controversial. Critics call them boondoggles that would cost taxpayers money and farmland, among other concerns.

Davis countered that the proposed South Suburban Airport near Peotone in Will County and the Illiana expressway would jumpstart business development in the area.

"The development of the third airport, the creation of the Illiana expressway, all of those things together will bode well for the south suburbs, and those are projects that are just kind of languishing because we can't get the administration to aggressively pursue making those things happen," he said.

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