With the hottest, often most violent, month of summer still to come, Chicago has logged record numbers of killings of public school students this year, with at least 30 teens gunned down or otherwise murdered since last fall.
This mirrors a trend in other major cities, where after years of a violent crime downturn, many violent crimes and particularly gang-related murders in low income neighborhoods are up. This of course disproportionately impacts low income minority youth, whether they are intended or accidental targets.
Not surprisingly, Chicago and other cities are stepping up their law enforcement approach. Chicago has blanketed many neighborhoods with police security cameras and police, for the first time, have been granted access to live footage from security cameras in schools and state police will likely join the Chicago Police Department in fighting gangs.
But many youth advocates say the real solution lies not only in more after school programs and opportunities for youth, but also more actual jobs for youth.
Youth joblessness is at its highest rate in six decades – since the Great Depression, according to research by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston.*
(Northeastern focuses on “joblessness” rather than “unemployment” as defined by the census, since to be defined as unemployed you must be actively looking for work, and many jobless youth have given up.)
American youth joblessness is a little-reported facet of larger trends in the U.S. workplace brought about by economic globalization and privatization. Without adequate health insurance or pensions, senior citizens are going back to work as grocery baggers or clerks—summer or after-school jobs of the past. Likewise, middle-aged adults are increasingly working two jobs to make ends meet, perhaps the evening janitorial or retail shift teens would have snapped up in the past.
And service industry, lawn care and construction employers are so focused on employing immigrants, often undocumented and hence easier to intimidate and exploit, that they don’t even consider hiring local teenagers.
In an ideal world, youth in their teens and early 20s would not need to work but could focus on school. But that is far from a reality for most youth.
Many are struggling to help support their families and/or pay for college with less and less financial aid or even student loans available.
Washington, D.C., Chicago, Detroit and New York had the worst youth joblessness rates going into the summer, according to Sum’s research.
Nationwide only about one in three youth do have a job; and minority youth in inner city neighborhoods are far less likely to have jobs than higher income, white youth.
The near-impossibility of getting a job for many youth in low income neighborhoods just increases the sense of discrimination, marginalization and hopelessness that fuels gang activity and lack of motivation and self esteem, according to many grassroots advocates and youth themselves.
Meanwhile the informal, usually gang-linked drug economy rarely provides the high-rolling lifestyle depicted in movies, but it is a source of income when teens have no other.
So what can be done?
A reorganization of federal workforce development programs in 2000 resulted in the elimination of a federal summer youth jobs program that at its peak employed about 750,000 youth per summer. Sum and other advocates are lobbying for the reinstatement of a federal summer jobs program and a focus on youth jobs in a second economic stimulus act. U.S. Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) called for $1 billion for youth jobs in legislation introduced this spring.
Currently city leaders and anti-violence advocates around the country are lamenting the fact their gun bans may be overturned by NRA lawsuits in the wake of the United States Supreme Court decision invalidating the Washington, D.C., gun ban.
But in places like Chicago, even with a gun ban kids are obviously getting guns. So gun bans or no, civic leaders need to give youth meaningful jobs that will help them get a leg up rather than shooting each other down.
*Link updated in 2020