Don’t Make Excuses For Jobless Youth

Nearly half of Black men ages 20-24 are out of school and out of work.  That is according to a report released this week by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute.  This unemployment rate is higher than the unemployment rates of Black men in other major cities in America.  Some have suggested that these numbers have a causal relationship with the high murder rate in many of the predominately Black communities in Chicago.  These young people are unemployed, that’s why they’re killing one another in the streets…or so the story goes.

The unemployment numbers are factual and undisputed. But, I’m not prepared to accept the idea that those unemployment numbers are the direct cause of violence in our communities.  I don’t disagree that the unemployment rates are unacceptable or that unemployment is a major problem facing our community. I just don’t like the idea of telling young people that if they’re unemployed I can understand why they chose to carry illegal guns and take human life at will. I don’t think it is responsible to make those kinds of excuses for murderers.  

Research has concluded that unemployment is strongly correlated with crime. But, the correlation is much stronger when it comes to property crimes like burglary and robbery than it is when it comes to violent crime.  And the most violent crimes like murder and rape are barely correlated at all. When it comes to the violence that we are contending with in our city, it is not just an unemployment issue, it is a culture issue.

There is however a solution that can begin to go after both unemployment and culture: fix our school system.  As President John Adams once said, “There are two types of education: one should teach us how to make a living; the other should teach us how to live”. In great schools, students get both.  Not only do these educational environments deliver to students the brass tacks information and skills they need to get and keep a job, these schools shoulder a good share of the burden of delivering soft skills and values like self-respect, personal integrity, interpersonal relations and a respect for the sanctity of human life.

Of course, someone is going to say that this is a job for the home, not the school.  I’d refer that someone to Rev. Gregory Kendrick who shared on this blog about the valuable life lessons he learned at his high school on the Westside. Teachers get as much or more face time with children than do the parents.  What is being taught at the home must be reinforced at school and vice versa.  It is a partnership that can be spurred from either side when there is a real commitment.  

So, when we see that unemployment rates among young Black men have reached epidemic proportions, it is important that we realize that we began to fail them long before they were candidates for work.  Schools in the the most vulnerable areas of our city have been too long in a perpetual state of crisis.  Now nearly half of our young Black men are out of school and out of work.  And far too many don’t even have the soft skills and moral character to hold their peace under that kind of pressure.  Let’s not make excuses.  Let’s find solutions.  And we can start by getting serious about fixing our schools.

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Chris Butler is first a husband and a dad. He has been involved across the spectrum of public engagement activities and has worked with a number of diverse constituencies in urban and suburban communities. He has also been involved in several political campaigns including his service as a youth and young adult coordinator for Barack Obama’s primary bid for U.S. Senate. Chris worked as deputy campaign manager and field director for A+ Illinois where he developed a strong, statewide field operation including over 500 organizations and 50,000 individuals around the state working to bring adequacy and equity to Illinois’ school funding system and as the director of advocacy and outreach at New Schools for Chicago, a leader in school reform in Chicago. Chris is a 2006 graduate of the Ministry Training Institute and holds a degree in civic and political engagement from Northeastern Illinois University.