By Jenny Lee
Demetrios Walton faces an exhausting daily scrabble just to make ends meet. He spends most of his day scouring the streets, hopping from one house to another to find small chores around his neighborhood. He paints, mows lawns, cleans houses or does just about anything that would pay him a few dollars – if at all. On lucky days, he travels to the suburbs to work in warehouses or construction sites for minimum wage. But opportunities like these rarely come for someone like Walton, who is an ex-offender from a neighborhood where outsiders fear to enter.
Walton, 43, returned to his family and friends in West Englewood last December after more than nine years in prison for sexual assault. Since then, he has been trying to get a job, but it hasn’t been easy. He said he usually just gets either the cold shoulder or the old “we’ll give you a call back” excuse from employers.
“It feels like I am getting punished for the same thing over and over again,” Walton says. “People like me who is trying to get a helping hand want a second chance at life, but the thing is nobody is trying to help us because of the system.”
A dismal job market
Wilton’s complaint is echoed by myriads of residents of West Englewood, one of the most impoverished, least-educated and most crime-ridden African American neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side. Home to more than 34,000 people, the neighborhood – roughly bounded by Garfield Boulevard, 75th Street, Hamilton and Racine avenues – is wallowing in high unemployment. For the past five years, the unemployment rate for West Englewood hovered around 37 percent, even as the city’s unemployment rate has recovered to 8.4 percent since the Great Recession.
Michael Dawson, director of the University of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, explains that the ailing economic situation in predominantly African American neighborhoods like West Englewood is a consequence of multiple factors. For one, these neighborhoods bore the brunt of the major economic shift from manufacturing to service economies.
From the mid to late 20th century, the growth in black income and black employment was concentrated in the highly unionized manufacturing sector, where there were greater protections for equal opportunity and workplace diversity than in the private sectors, as Dawson explains it.
But thousands of urban jobs were lost with the downturn in manufacturing since the 1980s, driven by improvements in productivity as well as the movement of production overseas or to suburban sites, according to a 2006 analysis released by the Federal Reserve of Chicago.
Illinois, with a number of successful steel mills and auto industries, was no exception to that pattern. The U.S. Census Bureau’s decennial population statistics indicate that in 1980, more than 1.3 million people worked in manufacturing industries. The number dwindled to less than 76,000 by 2014.
Similarly, public sector employment plummeted drastically during the recession because of state and local government budget cuts, disproportionately affecting African Americans. Between 2007 and 2011, state and local governments lost a total of 765,000 jobs and African Americans comprised about 20 percent of the loss, according to a 2012 report released by the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute (EPI). In the Chicago area, 18,600 government jobs disappeared during the same time frame. Since late 2014 the public sector has seen modest upticks, recovering almost 12,500 jobs as of this March, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.
Illinois’ private sector has recovered more than the public sector, with 64,300 new jobs added this March, for a total of 3,646,600, with the largest increase over the past year being in the leisure and hospitality industry, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But African Americans have less chance of getting a job in the private sector, where greater racial discrimination is present and higher skills are required. As a result, despite Illinois’ improved white unemployment rate, the black unemployment rate (as of the 4th quarter of last year) stood about 100 percent (one percentage point) above where it was before the recession. Hence the disparity between white and black workers is only growing, according to Valerie Wilson, director of Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy at EPI.
“Nationally and at the state level, the rate of black unemployment is typically at least twice that of white unemployment,” Wilson says. “But in Illinois, the estimates show that the black unemployment rate was three times higher than the white unemployment rate.”
To combat high unemployment rates, non-profit organizations are pushing for hard skills training, financial coaching, educational workshops and job placement. Among the organizations on the South Side is the St. Sabina Employment Resource Center, which serves more than 5,000 people from Auburn Gresham, Grand Crossing and Greater Englewood.
According to Lisa Ramsey, director of St. Sabina, the bulk of their clients seeking help are either young people, ages 16 to 24, who have been raised in broken homes with low to no skills and low educational attainment; or older people who were pushed out of their manufacturing jobs and still needed to work. The problem is that the two groups compete for the same, limited minimum-wage low-skill jobs because they do not possess the skill set or industry recognized credentials for the jobs that are open.
“When I first started [working here] 11 years ago, we would probably send 20 to 30 people for every job, but now it’s an open flood,” Ramsey says. “There’s like 400 to 500 people going for the same slot.”
In West Englewood, where only seven percent of residents are college-educated, many people resort to temporary job agencies to get commission-based jobs that last for just days or weeks. Most of these jobs have high staff turnover, such as warehouse, carpentry and retail jobs, Ramsey says. Often these jobs require an extremely long commute to work just for a few hours.
“We go through the city trying to get a job, but all we get is a job out in the suburbs or where you would have to spend your whole check just getting back and forth to work,” says Sherrod Anderson, 35, a lifelong West Englewood resident.
Maya Lee, 37, a single mother of three teenagers, feels frustrated by the wild goose chase for a stable job. With only a high school diploma, she has been jumping from job to job for years, serving at fast food joints or restaurants like Cracker Barrel. She rarely earned more than a minimum wage.
“It’s been a little bit harsh,” Lee says. “All I want is to get a nice regular paying job that I can survive out of and that I can retire out of and be able to take care of my children in the future.”
Crime and criminal records
Another major hurdle for the unemployed in West Englewood is the neighborhood’s reputation as one of the most dangerous places in Chicago, plagued by gang violence and violent crimes. With news headlines often highlighting crime in the neighborhood, residents face bias from possible employers, Anderson says.
“We do have crime in certain areas, but it’s not that the entire community is dangerous as the media portrays,” says Anderson, who is also the district leader for the National Block Club University, a non-profit organization that connects residents in 167 of the nation’s most dangerous zip codes to fight against violence and strengthen their communities.
West Englewood, long a place that has hovered near the top of citywide crime rankings, ranked 4th for violent crime rates among Chicago’s 77 community areas in the statistics released by the city of Chicago. In the past five months, 1,022 violent crimes, 566 property crimes and 451 quality-of-life crimes have been reported in West Englewood.
In addition to the high number of crime reports, the neighborhood is also home to a considerable number of ex-offenders, further establishing the image of West Englewood as an unsafe neighborhood. Between the dates of July 1, 2010 and May 25, 2016, 1,609 offenders self-reported that they were returning to West Englewood’s 60636 ZIP code, upon release. An additional 820 offenders are currently on parole in 60636, for a total of 2,429, according to Nicole Wilson of Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC).
And they, too, are looking for a job. Ex-offenders like West Englewood resident David Pryor feel demoralized by repeated rejections from prospective employers, who get “frightened away” by his background, as Pryor says.
“It’s not that I wasn’t trying. I applied for the UPS, restaurants, anywhere I can,” says Pryor, 37, who spent six years in prison for attempted murder. “But everywhere I went, they were turning me down.”
Walton says that ex-offenders face discrimination and stereotyping, preventing them from moving on with their lives.
“Your background is your past. You shouldn’t make a decision on hiring somebody or helping them based on their past,” Walton says.
Walton is currently working toward his college degree at Harold Washington College. He is also planning to get a forklift driver certification, hoping for a job in a warehouse or factory.
The Illinois Legislative Black Caucus is trying to improve the outlook for ex-offenders. Illinois State Senator Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago), a member of the caucus, has been working closely with the IDOC to try to help ex-offenders returning home have skills that qualify for today’s jobs.
“It’s a pretty persistent problem,” Hunter says. “In general, the priorities go towards younger people in the community and nobody wants to work with the so-called troublemakers of the community.”
In Illinois, there are several new policies designed to help ex-offenders reenter the workforce. A move to “Ban the Box” would delay background checks performed on candidates until later in the hiring process; the Work Opportunity Tax Credit program (WOTC) would provide employers that hire ex-offenders federal tax credits of up to $9,000; and the Criminal Identification Act would allow sealing of most records for misdemeanor violent offenses.
Dawson, referring to past studies conducted by other scholars, says economic opportunity tends to depress criminal activity and raise employment rates fairly rapidly.
But unfortunately, West Englewood could be called a “business desert,” with relatively few businesses or local job opportunities regardless of whether one has a criminal record.
Bringing business to West Englewood
On a scorching morning in West Englewood, a crowd begins to collect around a small, two story house near 62nd and Damen. Soon, through the wide open door comes Christina Rulford, holding a huge, colorful sign that reads “Bake Sale.”
A table is set up with an array of plastic containers filled with bite-size brownies, cupcakes and chocolate fudge, all handmade by Rulford’s mother.
“This is how people who don’t have jobs like my mama make money here,” says Rulford, 17, a student at Dunbar Vocational High School in Bronzeville. “She holds bake sales.”
Many residents of West Englewood build jobs within the community. Some sell handmade items to their neighbors such as baked goods, knitted clothes or even lawnmowers or barbeque grills they assembled with scraps of metals. Others run errands for the elders in the community and offer house cleaning or gardening services.
Around 63rd Street and Damen Avenue, widely known as the most lively business district in the neighborhood, there are fast food joints, small food marts and used car dealerships. But there isn’t a single big chain grocery store or restaurant. Residents note that West Englewood is a food desert.
“We have grocery stores but you have to travel outside the community for the one with good food and with not a lot of preservatives,” says Anderson. “No one sells fresh fruits and vegetables here in this community.”
The Census Bureau’s annual business patterns survey shows that there were 331 business establishments in West Englewood in 2014, and 114 of them were retail shops. Since 2011, about 25 businesses closed their doors. This presents a stark contrast to the number of businesses in Chicago’s central business district, the Loop, or the wealthy neighborhoods like the Gold Coast and the adjoining Lincoln Park area. In 2014, the number of businesses in the Loop stood above 14,000 and there were about 6,700 in the Gold Coast and Lincoln Park.
Cate Costa, director of entrepreneurship at the Chicago Urban League, says the decision about where to locate a business involves considering a wide variety of factors, from initial set-up expenses, to demographics and residents’ economic power. Of the clients she serves, most choose to locate in lower-crime areas such as Uptown, Andersonville or Edgewater on the North Side of Chicago and a few choose to go to Bronzville, where some development is happening. But they rarely choose to go to West Englewood.
“The rent is probably going to be quite low particularly in West Englewood, but the insurance is probably going to be fairly high because you’re at risk of break-ins, vandalism and damage moreso than another neighborhood,” says Costa, who helps aspiring entrepreneurs plan, launch and grow businesses in Chicago. However, she notes that recent economic movement in Englewood could potentially have positive effects on West Englewood.
A new Whole Foods Market is being built on 63rd Street in Englewood and Starbucks and Chipotle are also planned, hence the neighboring Englewood community area is set to see greater economic development.
“The neighborhood is going through a renaissance,” says Jim Harbin, program director at the Greater Englewood Community Development Corporation (GECDC).
The Director of Workforce Development at the Urban League, Andrew Wells, has a slightly different opinion.
Wells says it is true that the big-name retailers are bringing more jobs to the area, but no one yet knows whether the retailers will provide a source of income for the community residents or bring in another group of people from outside, who have more knowledge and experience in running businesses.
While acknowledging Well’s concern, State Sen. Hunter notes that local leaders have been working with city officials and retailers like Whole Foods to ensure local residents get jobs.
“I am confident that Whole Foods and the city will keep their word to the community,” says Hunter. “The corporations need to step up.”
[top photo: David Pryor, 37, a West Englewood resident and an ex-offender, grapples with finding himself a job. “There is a whole lot of people, but not a lot of business here,” Pryor says. (Jenny Lee/Medill)]
Jenny (Jee-Eun) Lee is a grad student studying journalism at Northwestern University.