For more than three hours yesterday, Cook County Commissioners were given stark statistics on Chicago’s high youth unemployment numbers, but few apparent solutions, as organizations like the Chicago Cook Workforce and One Summer Chicago have limited funds and shrinking resources from state and federal coffers.
“Sadly, we lead the nation in every category when it comes to unemployment,” Board President Toni Preckwinkle said at the opening of the meeting. “Far too many of our young people are cast adrift with little or no hope.”
Commissioner Bridget Gainer called for the hearing, intended for commissioners to hear results from a report out of the the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute: “Lost: The Crisis Of Jobless and Out Of School Teens and Young Adults In Chicago, Illinois and the U.S.” The report said across the board, joblessness increased over the past decade for every race and age group. In Chicago, 88.5% of Black males 16-19 were unemployed, and Hispanic males were close behind at 87.4% in 2014.
Father Michael Pfleger, Senior Pastor at Saint Sabina Church, gave some of the day’s most impassioned testimony, calling for more state funding and for private companies to open their doors to former offenders. He blamed Republican Governor Bruce Raunerfor cutting a thriving summer jobs program for at-risk youth at his church, saying St. Sabina’s program employed more than 1150 at-risk youth in the summer of 2014, but just 350 in 2015. “If we do not offer our young people something positive to do, then in fact, we become the promoters of gangs and drugs in our city. We will have a bloody summer come ahead of us if we don’t offer options for young people to get involved in,” Pfleger said. “The blood’s going to be on our hands.”
Statistics suggesting youth employment combats violence were backed up by Kelly Hallberg, scientific director at the University of Chicago Crime Lab. She testified that participation in One Summer Chicago, the city’s jobs program, significantly cut criminal activity in youth. “We found a 43% reduction in violent crime arrests for the young people who participated in the One Summer Chicago program,” compared to youth who didn’t participate, Hallberg said. “The difference got larger as you got further away from the summer… there seems to be something bigger going on here.”
Commissioners Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Deborah Sims each pushed Karin Norington-Reaves, CEO of the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, to call for funding for summer programs (rather than year-round), and for the city and county to voice support for national legislation proposed by U.S. Rep. John Conyears and Sen. Bernie Sanders to provide billions for youth employment. Garcia has campaigned for Sanders nationally.
Norington-Reaves emphasized the Partnership is non-partisan, focuses on year-round emplyoment, and was required to follow grant funding guidelines. “I understand your desire for summer jobs,” she told Commissioner Sims. “We’re hamstrung in our ability to have a large scale summer job program that just employs people for 6 or 8 weeks. That’s not what federal program is designed to do.” She said more than 4,000 young people are served by the partnership.
Following Norington-Reave’s testimony, dozens of pastors and county residents testified about the impact of youth employment on themselves or their communities, imploring commissioners for investment and empowerment.