Young people struggle with high unemployment

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Since she was laid off from her job as a personal assistant three months ago, Kieara Keys has been struggling to make ends meet.

The 22-year-old Austin resident is getting public aid, Keys said, but her monthly $850 check is just enough to cover her rent; it doesn’t begin to pay for food, clothes and utilities for herself and her two kids.

She goes job hunting every day, she said. But so far, she’s had no luck.

“I’m going through a dilemma,” she said. “I’m getting stressed out.”

Keys is one of an estimated 603,770 Illinois residents who were unemployed as of last month – 9.2 percent of the working-age population, according to statistics from the Illinois Department of Employment Security. That’s up from 8.9 percent in May, analysts told a panel of state politicians Tuesday at the James R. Thompson Center for a public hearing organized by Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago).

The state doesn’t release monthly unemployment numbers broken down by race, but the federal government does – and according to those figures, the economy is hitting blacks hard. Nationwide in June, 16.2 of African-Americans were unemployed, compared to 8.1 percent for whites and 11.6 percent for Hispanics.

And for young African-Americans, the rates are higher still: Nearly 40 percent of black teens ages 16 to 19 are unemployed. That’s down from 40.7 percent in May – but still nearly double the unemployment rate of white teens (21.8 percent).

Richard Reeder, community liaison consultant for Bronzeville’s Youth Connection Charter School, told Tuesday’s panel those numbers translate to a serious problem for Chicago’s teens, leading to the worst conditions he’s seen in his 47 years as a community activist.

“Those statistics are dire, and they’re a crisis,” Reeder said, suggesting the government hire youth for jobs like landscaping and snow removal. “I’ve never seen it worse on the streets than it is right now.”

Hundreds of residents attended this week’s hearing, where speakers called on leaders – including Ford, state Reps. Deb Mell (D-Chicago) and Mary Flowers (D-Chicago) – to do more to create jobs and chastised them for ending jobs programs like Put Illinois to Work. Smaller panels convened to discuss issues related to youth, the  formerly incarcerated, aging and Hispanic workers, among other topics.

Regina Lewis, CEO of Ashunti Community Resource Center, an organization that offers a mentoring program for West Side teens, said Austin was hit hard by cuts to Chicago’s youth employment programs. Facing cuts in federal stimulus dollars, the city offered 14,000 youth jobs this summer, compared to 18,000 last year, according to the Chicago Tribune.

“We see that the system is failing,” said Lewis, a former candidate for 24th Ward alderman. “A lot of our kids have given up. They don’t believe in the system, period.”

The repercussions of joblessness are far-reaching for all age groups, reported Lynn Todman of the Adler School of Professional Psychology.

Lacking a job, people are far more likely to suffer from poor nutrition, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and may be more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors, Todman told the panel. They’re also much likelier to engage in the “informal labor market,” such as selling drugs, she said.

All of this, in turn, make them less employable, Todman said.

Ironically, unemployment can also make it harder to go back to school – a lesson 18-year-old Jarrett Norwood is learning the hard way.

Norwood, who’s been out of work since receiving his GED last December, said he’s ready to start classes at Malcolm X College of Chicago – but after budget cuts eliminated his summer job at Ashunti, he’s been volunteering instead. Now he’s worried he won’t be able to pay his fees.

“I really can’t afford to be working for free,” Norwood said. “But I have no choice right now.”

Rep. Flowers told a group of young speakers their joblessness was not their fault, but the fault of their environment.

“I look out my window every day, and I see the likes of you,” Flowers said. “You’re going through the growing pains of life.”

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