Black employment in Cook County is sandwiched between hope and reality
Jobs can be a source of inspiration, but opportunities are diminishing for young Black people in the Chicago area, Alden Loury writes.
Last month, I walked into a sandwich shop on the campus of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
A young woman behind the counter greeted me with a wide smile. We exchanged pleasantries, after which I looked over the menu. She asked what I’d ordered in the past and encouraged me to try something new. So I went with her recommendation: the chicken club, her favorite.
The young lady making my sandwich was my 19-year-old daughter.
I was visiting her during Dad’s Weekend at the U. of I. Getting a chance to see her work was the highlight of my weekend with her. And the sandwich was pretty tasty, I must say.
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I can see how the job is working its magic on her. She’s beginning to handle some of her expenses on her own. She’s turning down social plans to get more hours at work, and she’s even saving money to reward herself from time to time. It’s a joy to watch.
I hope the grind of working a job, no matter how mundane, inspires her the way it inspired me. That inspiration is why employment opportunities, which new Census data show are in short supply for young Black people, are so essential.
Jobs as a source of life skills and hope
More than 30 years ago, I was also making sandwiches on the very same campus.
As I tried to rebound from years of academic struggles — flunking out of the U. of I. three times — and figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life, I took on a number of minimum-wage jobs. In addition to assembling sub sandwiches, I packed boxes of cheese into plastic containers at one factory, bagged plastic cups at another and harassed people with telemarketing calls at yet another job.
It wasn’t a glamorous life. However, it taught me responsibility and some basic life skills. But, most importantly, it gave me hope.
After getting a full-time gig as a bank teller, I still needed additional income to begin paying back student loans even though I wasn’t enrolled at the time and still light years away from earning a degree. I picked up a part-time evening job at the Champaign News-Gazette fielding calls from high school football and basketball coaches and compiling box scores of their games.
I thought it would be a fun way to earn extra cash, but it opened my eyes to the world of journalism and put me on the path that has led me to where I am today.
That journey began with long hours of menial work where I tortured myself with regret, but it ended with a college degree and the promise of a rewarding career. Along the way, I learned I had determination and resilience, and discovered my passion and capabilities.
Cook County’s racial employment gap
But the opportunities are diminishing for young people in the Chicago area, particularly those who look like me, to experience similar work journeys and earn the priceless benefits they can yield.
Census data released this month shows Cook County is home to nearly 170 census tracts where the unemployment rate was higher than 16%, triple the national rate. The numbers come from responses to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey from 2018 through 2022.
Cook County led the nation in census tracts with that high level of unemployment. And to no one’s surprise, those census tracts were most often in Black communities on Chicago’s South and West sides as well as the near west and south suburbs of Cook County.
Meanwhile, unemployment in Cook County among Black 16-to-24-year-olds is staggering: a whopping 35% during that five-year period, according to the recently released census data. For all other 16-to-24-year-olds in the county, unemployment was 13%. For county residents of all ages, unemployment was 7%.
For centuries, millions of people have gone to great lengths and traveled thousands of miles to find jobs in this country in pursuit of their dreams. Those work journeys led Europeans across the Atlantic Ocean, African Americans from the Jim Crow south to the segregated north, Mexicans across the southern U.S. border and, more recently, South Americans across a continent.
Far too often, American employers outsource or automate jobs to increase their profits. The long-term benefits those jobs can provide for workers are being traded away for the short-term benefits of profit.
Creating jobs, even low-paying jobs, is important and necessary because it does more than put a few dollars in peoples’ pockets. It can transform their lives.
Alden Loury is the data projects editor for WBEZ. He writes a monthly column for the Sun-Times.
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