CHICAGO - A group of African American youth and community organizers who gathered to watch President Obama deliver his State of the Union address were most interested in what the president had to say about jobs.
"I'm hoping he can touch on what he said during the campaign - helping out the poorer classes, jobs - the change (Obama campaigned on)," said Deandrae Manuel, 27, one of the group who watched the speech at the Peace Corner on Chicago's West Side last week. "The unemployment here is real bad, 60 percent among the youth I know and my family," Manuel said.
The Peace Corner is a storefront youth center in the Austin neighborhood. Like other African American communities, it has been devastated by unemployment. The area had the nation's seventh-highest unemployment rate in 2008, 20.9 perent, even before the recession hit.
Obama's emphasis on jobs creation comes as a new report by the Center for Labor Market Studies shows teenage and young adult unemployment in Chicago at Great Depression levels, after having dropped precipitously over the decade leading up to the current economic crisis.
The "Lost Decade" study shows 85 percent of African American youth, 70 percent of Latino youth and 67 percent of white youth 16-19 years old were not working. Seventy-two percent of teens were not working statewide.
Sixty-six percent of African Americans aged 20-24 were unemployed in Illinois, along with 33 percent of Latino youth and 35 percent of white youth of the same age.
A staggering 23 percent of African Americans 16-24 were both out of school and out of work in 2008.
Job losses over the last 10 years suggest this economic crisis is different and a cyclical rebound won't address the problems. Special measures need to be taken to create jobs for teenagers and young adults, many are saying.
"I wanted to hear more about jobs for me and the people going through what I'm going through, said Leroy Clay, 25, a youth counselor at the Peace Corner. Clay described the Austin community as struggling with poverty, violence and drug problems.
Speaking of the future, he said, "I'm kind of scared. I do want to be involved in my community, especially helping the kids."
Clay said there is a need for people to join together and even protest, to show "we're trying and pushing for change."
Elce Redmond, a community organizer with the South Austin Coalition, said he was hoping President Obama would "institute a national jobs program to put the most vulnerable to work, the ex-offenders, youth and the chronically unemployed.
"There has to be some bill in place that puts people back to work," said Redmond. "Something that will put 3.5 million back to work over the next five-year period to jumpstart the economy."
Redmond says there is plenty to do in the Austin community including retrofitting and rebuilding schools, fixing streets, rehabbing abandoned buildings, weatherizing homes and hiring social service workers and community organizers.
Redmond's group, the South Austin Coalition, is one of many organizations that Chicago Jobs with Justice called together ron Jan. 25 to begin mapping out a campaign to win massive jobs creation and stepped up government intervention to get the country out of the economic crisis. The local effort is part of Jobs for America Now, a rapidly growing coalition of over 80 national labor, civil rights and community organizations.
Lionel Carter, 25, an intern at the Peace Center and a graduate student where he is working toward a Master's degree in social work, said the president had great ideas, "but it seems to leave out certain populations," especially people who have been in jail, and immigrants."
He said he saw Congress as "a major hold up." Change has to be a collaborative effort - the president, Congress and "average people," he said.
The Peace Corner is run by a not-for-profit organization led by Father Maurizio Binaghi. It has developed successful programs for youth who have been ensnared in the criminal justice system. Its programs include GED and computer literacy classes, tutoring and legal counseling. A jobs program in collaboration with the Community Investment Corporation acquires abandoned buildings in the neighborhood and rehabs them. The youth get valuable skills in the construction trades and many have gone on to get jobs in the industry. Over 100 youth have gotten jobs in the last seven years.
"I liked what (Obama) said," commented Father Binaghi. "But I was expecting something different. There is a lot of emphasis on tax breaks and the middle class. But what about the poor? A lot about tax breaks for small business and corporations but what about resources for not-for-profits like ours that are doing good work?"
"This is such a needed program especially in an area like this where there are no jobs, and for youth who are considered unemployable because of mistakes they have made in the past," said Binaghi.
The Peace Corner would benefit from the Put America to Work Act of 2009 introduced by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN). HR 4268 would create 1 million jobs by granting $40 billion to local governments to create jobs in the public or non-profit sector and small businesses that provide public services.
Obama proposed to make available funds for community banks to lend to small businesses. Unfortunately, it comes too late for the one community bank in the neighborhood, Park National. The bank was healthy and gave 27 percent of its profits to local charitable projects, but was taken over by the FDIC then handed over to US Bank, one of the nation's largest.
Photo: PW/John Bachtell