Youth joblessness is reaching record highs this summer, hitting 66 percent nationwide (the highest since unemployment data was first collected in the 1960s). These numbers rise dramatically for African American youth, who in Chicago face an unemployment rate of 85 percent. These numbers also rise across the board if you include young people who have given up looking for work, who currently go uncounted. But this is not a numbers game.
Summer jobs are not just a fun thing for kids to earn pocket money, or just a lesson in responsibility. They need these jobs! In today’s economy many young people have to pay for their own clothes, phones and school supplies. They rely on summer jobs to pay for school, rent, and help support their families. When they cannot fulfill these financial needs in the formal economy, some young people are driven to the “informal economy” of drugs and crime. Others join the military. Our youth need better options for a meaningful and constructive life.
Summer job programs are one of the ways that youth unemployment was curbed in the past. Similar programs are needed today.
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley says youth employment is a part of his plan to curb youth violence. However, his program, which is arguably one of the better ones in the country, only employed 1,000 Chicago youth in the private sector last year.
Every year this program garners at least 40,000 applications, only a small fraction of Chicago’s unemployed youth, but some 75 percent are turned away because the program can only accommodate 10,000. And the program’s stringent requirements leave the city’s most in-need youth to fend for themselves in a collapsing job market.
A nationwide comprehensive summer jobs program is needed. Youth advocacy programs know the price joblessness has had on youth, from explosions in gang violence to hopelessness and poverty. That is why they are fighting for a federally funded summer jobs program that would allocate $2 billion to jobs for youth, and would bring at least 2 million youth into the job market. Now that’s more like it!