BRONZEVILLE — Teens recovering from drug addiction, trying to raise their own children and working to earn a diploma pleaded with state and city leaders today to address the skyrocketing unemployment among youth.
“America has this image that if you have an education you can get a job, but it takes more than a piece of paper,” said Darrius West, a student at Prologue Alternative High School.
West was one of more than 30 students at the Chicago Urban League’s annual Chicago Youth Hearing on Summer Jobs and Opportunities to express frustration with being jobless and to feel that the system was rigged to favor the more fortunate.
Brendan Murray said he dropped out of John Marshall Metropolitan High School because he was scared by the amount of drugs he saw at the school. At 16, he struggled to find a job.
“I needed money so I chose to sell drugs even though I knew it was wrong — I needed it to provide for my family.” Murray said. “The streets welcomed me with open arms.”
Murray said he was arrested, but narrowly avoided jail time and, after being under house arrest, has been able to re-enroll in high school at West Town Academy.
“I’m glad I got my life back on track and hopefully I’ll be working soon,” Murray said.
Last year, more than 72 percent of Illinois teens age 16 to 19 were unemployed, a sharp drop from 50 percent unemployment in 2000, according a report from the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston.
The numbers get worse for the less fortunate. The unemployment rate is more than 94 percent for black teens in households earning less than $40,000 a year.
“That first paycheck, the first thing I did was I gave every penny to my mom,” said Eric Therman, a senior at Ada S. McKinley Academy’s Lakeside campus, who got a temporary job at a culinary arts program. “With every paycheck, I help my family before I help myself because that is what I was put here to do.”
The more than 20 elected officials from the state, county and city listened intently to the youth, some letting out a gasp when a student said he walked 27 blocks to school every day because he couldn’t afford bus fare.
“The factual stories are crying out that our young people need jobs,” said Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) after the three hours of testimony. “If we don’t act, I think we’re going to lose a lot of young people to violence.”
Fioretti said he would reintroduce to City Council an ordinance allowing funds from tax increment financing districts to be used for summer job programs.
Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) said the testimony was moving, but many of the elected representatives were already convinced of the urgency of the issue before the forum.
“The bottom line is the federal government has to do more,” Dowell said. “We need a national effort and I don’t see any of our national leaders here.”