Experts say crime and youth job losses linked

Chicago community leaders are calling for the city to make a New Year’s resolution: get young people off the streets.

The Chicago Urban League held a public hearing today asking city, state and federal officials to end what they call an epidemic of youth dropouts and joblessness by promoting government programs that would help young people get jobs or go back to schools.

Students from local schools and experts from around the city testified at the hearing, saying that when young people can’t find an job or get an education, it leads to more violence on Chicago streets.

“I think the job rate and the death rate are directly connected,” said Frederick Williams, a student at Academy for Scholastic Achievement on the city’s West Side. “When you take away the jobs, what else do you expect teens to do?”

Of the 1.7 million jobs that have been lost over the last year, 60 percent of those losses have hit people age 25 and younger, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.

“Teens tend to be the first ones pushed out during a recession,” says Joe McLaughlin, research associate at the center. “If it had happened to adults, we would be talking about a depression.”

The number of kids dropping out of high school is also growing. As many as one in four high school students in Illinois drop out of school, says Jack Wuest, exeutive director of the Alternative Schools Network, an organization that develops programs to help students stay or re-enroll in school.

About 220,000 high school drop outs in Illinois, officials say. About half of the state’s dropouts – 100,000 students – are here in the Chicago area, according to CLMS figures.

“You get a lot of kids out on the streets, and it’s not hard to figure out why there are more shootings, stabbings and acts of violence,” says Wuest.
Panelists said 2008’s crime statistics show a clear connection between crime and the economy – there are  508 murders last year, the highest the number has been since the end of the last recession in 2003, says Myra Sampson, executive director of Community Christian Academy, a private high school in the Lawndale neighborhood.

“We can look at the data among our young people,” says Sampson. “What are we going to do to reengage these youths?”

The presenters are asking government officials to do what they can to promote programs for youth to re-enroll in school and find jobs.

A number of elected officials attended the discussion, including state Sen. Mattie Hunter, D-3, who says she will be meeting with her colleagues to craft legislation to try and help the crisis.

Hunter says she thought the testimony of the students was touching and important, and something she identified with herself.

"I grew up in public housing, and it was employment and sports that kept me out of trouble," says Hunter.

Wuest says giving jobs to young people will not only reduce crime, but it will stimulate our economy and create positive change in struggling communities.

“People want to work. Having a job gives them dignity, lets them hold their head up high,” says Wuest. “It keeps them active, not destructive.”

Megan Cottrell covers public housing for the Daily News. She can be reached at 773-362-5002, ext. 12