Youth workforce development isn’t enough to tackle income inequality

By Katelyn Skye Bennett | Editor-in-chief

Income inequality is one of the largest problems in the United States, and its solutions are far more complex than instituting equal pay laws.

In the year before COVID-19 hit, the Washington Post reported that “Income inequality in the United States has hit its highest level since the Census Bureau started tracking it more than five decades ago, according to data released [fall 2019], even as the nation’s poverty and unemployment rates are at historic lows.”

Obviously the pandemic has worsened unemployment rates since then, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics shares frequent updates in that regard.

The 2019 Washington Post article continued, “Though the gap between the richest and poorest expanded, the nation’s median household income topped $63,000 for the first time. However, after adjusting for inflation, it’s roughly the same as it was 20 years ago.”

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Why Do I Care?

In my day job, I work with out-of-school youth aged 16-24, youth who are facing barriers to employment and thus have trouble finding and keeping work. Some of these barriers can include being pregnant or parenting, homeless, dropping out of high school, having a disability of any sort, or living in a low income neighborhood and being basic skills deficient, which is defined as operating below a high school level.

While the folks I work with have had to innovate and persist throughout their lives, they are facing massive obstacles stemming back to unstable childhoods with various traumas and poor educations that allowed most of them to graduate high school while still operating at elementary school functioning levels. 

They are lacking the skills to gain meaningful employment or to maintain it due to their complex histories. While my program teaches workforce development skills, funds vocational trainings, and provides other valuable assistance related to career building, we can only work with individuals while observing the larger, deeper issues that caused our clients and so many others to get to this point. 

The government, which funds our grant, is playing catch up rather than investing in proactive measures that actually address the root issues.

What’s telling is that our Chicagoland grant overwhelmingly attracts Black women, and based on our localized research, there’s an incredible need for employment among young Black men and the Latino community next.

The government is playing catch up rather than investing in proactive measures that actually address the root issues.

Give Me That Data

As of the latest data on out-of-school youth collected in Chicago, 30% of Black men aged 16-24 were unemployed, compared to 12.8% of Hispanic or Latino men and only 7% of white men in that age range. 

Surprisingly, women fared a little better, with 21.4% of Black, female-identifying Chicagoans being unemployed compared to 13% of Hispanic or Latino women (comparable with men of the same ethnicity) and 3.9% of white women aged 16-24.

The data does not consider Asians or any Indigenous peoples or consider nonbinary genders. 

Looking at out-of-school youth aged 16-24 on a national scale, Black men are still the most unemployed at 20.8%, higher than any other group yet drastically less than the same demographic in Chicago. Young Hispanic or Latino men’s national unemployment rate is 12.8%, comparable to the local level, with the national rate of white men being 9.6%, slightly higher than the local rate.

The racial disparities paralleling income inequality in Chicago become even clearer when we discover that only 14.8% of Black young women are unemployed nationally, along with 13.9% of Hispanic or Latino women and 9.1% of white women.

Overall, the unemployment rates of out-of-school Hispanic or Latino youth aged 16-24 remain comparable from Chicago to the national statistics, sitting about 4 percentage points higher than whites on a national level and 7.5% higher locally. The disparity between Black youth and these two groups is significantly larger nationally and locally, though the local implications are monstrous.

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More information about the long term effects of disconnected youth’s socioeconomic mobility can be found here, as well as information on the benefit of remedial programs as one solution, though I would argue that we must be proactive if we truly want to pursue equity and assert that better education is integral to that. 

Visual information on racial disparities in high school graduation rates, poverty, and other factors influencing employment can be viewed here.

Discrimination Once on the Job

Racial inequality within the workplace is an issue as well, and wage discrimination is a concern along both gender and racial lines. Though there are protections on a federal level, including Title 1 of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, activists could tell you that we have a long way to go before our workforce is truly equitable.

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The Simple Things Matter

In terms of getting folks employed in the first place, the smallest actions can help. “One change that could help reduce racial inequities in the workplace may surprise you: helping minorities get driver’s licenses back after losing them because they couldn’t afford to pay their tickets,” Forbes informed.

The article expounded, “[Tanya] Wallace-Gobern said her group’s New Orleans center created a traffic clinic for this purpose, with help from local attorneys, judges and Loyola University. ‘One member talked about applying for a job but didn’t have access to it because his license was suspended. His traffic tickets equaled $23,000 at the time. Through the traffic clinic, that was reduced to $9! He now has a driver’s license and we think he’ll be successful.”

Kamala Harris has run on a platform of “equal pay certification,” which would be another useful step in minimizing the gender gap for those currently employed.

Though not the only factor, quality teachers, especially those of color, make a big difference for in-school youth, which increases the chances that students will benefit from their education rather than fall behind, impacting their competency in the workforce.

While remedial workforce development programs like the one for which I work are useful resources for unemployed youth today, by continuing to address the root causes of income inequality, including naming and attacking systemic racism, we can pursue more sustainable solutions.

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