With violence surging on Chicago streets, a hundred young people from the South Side are travelling to Springfield this week to press for funding for summer jobs for youth.
Youth unemployment has also surged — 90 percent of Chicago black males aged 16 to 19 are unemployed, according to Jack Wuest of the Alternative Schools Network  — reaching “historically unprecedented” levels since federal funding for youth employment was eliminated in 2000, according to a study just released by ASN.
On Wednesday, participants in youth leadership development programs at the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization  and area high schools will lobby for funding for the Community Youth Employment Act. HR 4553  was approved last week but still requires an appropriation for funding. It aims at creating 2500 jobs for youth in low-income communities this summer, and more in the future.
Jitu Brown of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization says a stepped-up effort should take advantage of the capacity of community groups to reach young people most in need.
KOCO: From 100 jobs to 5
In the early 1990s KOCO had federal funding through the city for nearly 100 summer jobs for youth, Brown said; in 2005 there were five slots, and he scrambled to find support for a few more positions. The group integrates a range of life skills and leadership development trainings for teens who work at its summer camp.
The additional programming makes a big difference, Brown said. “A lot of our young people improved their job performance, and some who had left school returned to school,” he said. The group helped find year-round jobs for the most successful summer workers.
SWOP: Summer jobs and neighborhood safety
A handful of youth joined scores of Southwest Organizing Project  members for a recent lobby day in Springfield, and neighborhood safety activists decided to focus on the youth employment measure, said Sandra del Toro. “We want to be less reactive, to do more than just responding to shootings,” she said.
SWOP works in an area with one of the highest concentrations of youth in the city. “Summer jobs are a great asset for young people,” said Torres. “They need an opportunity to achieve and excel, and summer jobs give them that — and it keeps them off the streets, expecially with the rise of violence we’re seeing.”
Mayor Daley has coordinated a range of public and private resources to provide nearly 20,000 youth jobs this summer. In 1984, when federal funding was in place, the city provided 40,000 such jobs, Brown said.
Youth employment declined during recovery
With the elimination of federal funding, youth employment has been left behind in the recent economic recovery.
Between 2003 and 2007, for the first time ever, youth employment rates continued to fall during a period of general employment expansion, according to a national study (pdf ) released at an ASN rally last week.
Youth employment rates have declined by nearly a third since 2000, according to the study; if the nation’s teens were employed at the rate seen in the year 2000, there would be 2 million more teenagers working.
The problem requires action on the federal level, Wuest said. “Whatever the state or city or county can do is great — but they just don’t have the money” to address the scope of the problem, he said. He’s supporting a bill  providing a $1 billion supplemental appropriation for youth employment that was introduced in February (it’s consponsored by U.S. Representatives Davis, Gutierrez, Jackson, Rush and Schakowsky from Chicago).
Chicago’s share of total federal employment funds have dropped from $220 million in 1980 to $26 million this year, he said.
Restoring funding to 1980′s level “would significantly reduce the violence in the streets,” Wuest said.
Youth employment is also a major factor in subsequent success — most jobs require previous experience, and it is work experience that puts people on a path of improved earnings.
Wuest points out that low-income kids are three times more likely to be unemployed than middle- and upper-class youth.