Teens testify ‘We want jobs’

CHICAGO, Ill.— According to 18-year-old African American Gabrielle Banks, having a job as a young person these days, is more than just an opportunity to gain experience in the workforce or build skills. A job is critical, right now, because it helps provide for the basic necessities at home, she said.

“I used my checks to help buy things for my house such as cleaning supplies and groceries, so that would be one less burden on my mom considering that she has the only household income,” she adds.

Banks was speaking at a Youth Hearing on Education, Jobs and Justice here Jan. 26.

She and dozens of students from schools throughout the city testified before hundreds of their peers including a panel of national, state and local elected officials and community leaders. The students came to tell their personal stories about how the impact of rising joblessness among teens and young adults continues to plague their communities.

The youth along with local community groups and educators are urging lawmakers to support legislation that will allocate more federal funding toward summer and year-round employment opportunities for youth here and across the country.

“We want jobs – but jobs alone are not enough!” said Banks. “We need help… more help. We need leadership, job security and stability.”

Young people need role models and trainers to help direct us and allow us the opportunities to gain the tools we need in order to become productive members of society, she said.

Banks held a summer job for the last two years, which she said has helped her grow as a young and healthy person.

“I loved my job!” she said. “And I loved getting checks!”

Banks continued, “If more students were able to get trained for jobs, work and maintain jobs – that alone would eliminate the need for kids to sell drugs and rely on the streets for other sources of income.” The employment of teens is very important and should be widely offered, she said.

A new report by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, commissioned by the Alternative Schools Network, was presented at the hearing. According to the report the number of U.S. and Illinois employment rates for teens and young adults are at historic lows.

Marking a new low for the state the employment rate for Illinois teens in 2009 was more than 20 percentage points below 2000. Experts say youth who spend substantial time away from school and work run a greater risk of being jobless, poor or incarcerated by their early and mid-20s.

Employment rates among teens dropped sharply across all gender, race, family-income groups and education levels in the state. Teens from low-income, minority families and high school dropouts fared the worst in the state and in Chicago.

Among African Americans, the number of working teens fell from 21 percent in 2000 to 18 percent in 2007. It plunged to 12 percent from January through November of last year.

Among Latinos, it dropped from 41 percent in 2000 to 27 percent in 2007 and stood at 30 percent last year.

Among whites, employment dropped from 57 percent in 2000 to 45 percent in 2007 and 33 percent last year.

Experts add, teens are competing with 20- to 24 year-olds who don’t have four-year degrees and are holding onto jobs they had as teens mostly at retail stores, restaurants and in the leisure and hospital industries. And both groups are competing with adults 55 and over, they note. Employment among those 55 and older rose 5.4 percentage points from 2000 to 2009 – the only category to show an increase.

In 2008 in the city of Chicago, only 15 percent of Black teens were working compared to 30 percent of Latinos and 33 percent of whites. Among 16- to 24-year-olds, 27 percent of Blacks and 17 percent of Latinos were out of school and work in 2008.

Among high school students, only 12 percent in Chicago and 27 percent statewide were working in 2008.

The report, “The Lost Decade for Teen and Young Adult Employment in Illinois: The Current Depression in the Labor Market for 16-24 Year Olds in the Nation and State,” is based on analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau data.

The Chicago Urban League, the Alternative Schools Network and other advocates organized the hearing and are calling for the allocation of $1.5 billion in federal stimulus money for youth employment and re-enrollment programs across the nation. Such initiatives should include expanding state and federal government high school internship and school-to-career opportunities, they say.

They add lawmakers should support the “Youth Jobs Act of 2010” introduced by U.S. Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash. The bill would provide $1.5 billion through the Workforce Investment Act to stimulate local economies by building on and expanding the Recovery Act youth employment program.

“No other age group has experienced such steep employment declines in the current recession,” said Herman Brewer, acting president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. “Low-income and minority youth who depended on part-time jobs as a significant stepping stone to future employment have been forced out of the job market and economically marginalized,” he said.

Student after student told their personal stories about why young people need jobs to stay off the streets and help their families pay expenses. One student said some youth rely on prostitution, joining gangs, selling drugs or theft as their only option in order to make money. Others said city schools in general need better funding that incorporates new textbooks, computers, sports and recreational programs.

We’re all in the same boat, said Mexican American student Diana Pilar.

“For young people like myself this is a big issue,” she said. “People need to make money to survive and pay for college costs. And we can’t depend on our parents because even they don’t have jobs.”

Roxanne Nava is the assistant director with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and said her group fully supports the demands presented at the hearing.

“Our number one goal is keeping and growing jobs and growing a world class workforce,” said Nava. “A job gives you hope and direction and allows young people an opportunity to succeed. So many times we tell young people to study hard and get a good job but what’s really at the end of that line.” This issue is a bipartisan one and we need to support federal job programs for young people, she said.

Others said when young people are working it helps generate economic activity and community development. Some said putting teens and young adults back to work is really a matter of national security and will help provide kids with practical alternatives. Federal funding for national jobs programs is a great investment for young people and the future of America, they note.

“Youth are starving for job opportunities,” said Miriam G. Martinez, youth innovation fund director with the Mikva Challenge.

“Some youth are the only financial providers for their families,” she said. When youth are asked how they can improve their lives and their communities, more jobs are always at the top of their lists, she said.

“Our youth just want a chance and we are asking that the federal government invest in our youth,” said Martinez. “If our federal government can invest billions in saving the banks and the financial institutions then they should also invest in the future of America’s youth.”

Executive Director of the Alternative Schools Network Jack Wuest said, “We need a broader stimulus plan to engage disconnected youth who are discouraged and dropping out of the job market.”

Wuest continued, “The recent jobs bill, while a start, is unlikely to have a substantial affect on the record of youth joblessness. Job creation, particularly for teens and young adults, has to be a priority for 2010 if we are to prevent a second economic downturn.”

Photo: Gabrielle Banks testifies for special legislative steps to create jobs for young people. Pepe Lozano/PW