Teen employment drops in Illinois

Teen employment in Illinois last year dropped to its lowest level in more than 40 years, with minorities and youth from low-income homes among the hardest hit, according to a report released Tuesday.

Statewide, 27.5 percent of teens were employed, down from nearly 50 percent in 1999 and 36 percent in 2007, according to the report from Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies prepared for the Alternative Schools Network in Chicago.

The 2011 figure is the lowest in the past 42 years for which state teen employment data exist, and Illinois had one of the biggest drops in teen employment in the country, according to the report.

Black and Hispanic teens from low-income homes were the least likely to have jobs. In Chicago, 90 percent of black teens aged 16-19 and 81 percent of Hispanic teens were jobless in 2009-10. For black and Hispanic teens from homes where the household income was less than $40,000, the numbers were 93 percent and 86 percent.

“To me, it’s not gang violence, it’s not that we’re not trying, it’s more of economic violence,” said Elizabeth Jones, 18, a senior at Frederick Douglass Academy on the city’s hard-hit West Side. “The economy is bringing us down.”

Jones was one of dozens of teens who testified Tuesday at a hearing on youth employment sponsored by the Chicago Urban League and overseen by a panel of elected officials. She and others blamed the lack of legal job options for teens turning to illegal means to make money, including selling drugs, committing robberies and turning to prostitution.

Teens said they need jobs not only to help them prepare for the future but to help their parents and siblings today. And many have already started families of their own, finding themselves trying to support themselves, their parents and their children.

For young people in those situations, the summer jobs provided by many government programs just aren’t enough.

“I have the rest of the year to worry about,” said a tearful Shawdtrana Campbell. “That money (is) gone.”

It’s critical to have the teens tell their stories to elected officials who can influence funding for teen employment programs, said Andrea Zopp, president and CEO of the Urban League. “It renews their vigor to get it done,” she said.

Nationwide, the teen employment rate has fallen from 45 percent in 1999-2000 to 26 percent in 2011, the report said.

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