The lack of progress in Quami Simmonds’ life left him dissatisfied. This summer, the 19-year-old decided to leave the South for New York to take up boxing as a way to begin to recalibrate a different path for his future.
“It’s not an option that you want to go towards,” said Simmonds, who left Atlanta to escape what he described as the ‘fast-life’ and now picks up odd jobs as a painter. “You have to go towards [crime] if you don’t have a job…You will do everything that’s in your power to keep your [stack] up.”
These days Simmonds, who has a G.E.D., divides his time between his painting jobs and training at a Brooklyn boxing center where former world champions like Mark Breland and Riddick Bowe got their start.
“I [knew] I wasn’t going to be a drug kingpin,” says Simmonds, who still has moss-like hair substituting for sideburns on his lean face.
“A lot of people that took that route usually ended up dead or in jail. I try to be in the gym as much as I can,” Simmonds adds as he adjusts his hand wraps. “I heard that I might be ready for the golden gloves next year. If I win that, things might pick up.”
Although the unemployment rate for African-Americans dropped to 15.6 percent in November, the unemployment rate for black teens between the ages of 16 to 19 currently stands at 49.4 percent – a sharp increase from last month’s number of 41.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number only accounts for the number of teens actually participating in the labor market.
For white teens of the same age bracket, the unemployment rate is less than half that – 23 percent in November, down from 25 percent the month before.
Dr. David Holmes Swinton, a Harvard-trained economist and president of Benedict College in South Carolina, compares this current economic meltdown to the early Reagan years.
“Unemployment was really high then,” says Swinton. ”[We] also had inflation going on that time, [but] youth employment has been problematic ever since the 1960s.”
WANTING TO WORK
Still there are many parents who may not want their children in the workforce at such a young age.
Debra King, a records guidance secretary at East St. John High School in Reserve, Louisiana, says that the majority of the students who apply for work permits in her office typically work for spending money, not necessity. During the school year within the district, students are not permitted to work more than 20 hours per week.
King says she has seen a 50 percent drop in the number of work permits processed for the school’s 1,300 students, grades 9 through 12. In the 2009 school year, King says that she has processed approximately 30 work permit applications, which typically indicate that the student has already secured employment. Of the permits King processed this year, roughly 90 percent went to African-American students.
“Most of the places that the students work are fast food restaurants,” King said via email. “But this year, that is not happening.”
HIT THE ROAD, JACK
Swinton calculates that 1 out of 6 teenagers who desire to work land jobs. For black males, age 20 and older, Dr. Swinton believes that only three quarters of this specific segment participate in the labor market.
“If you think about it, this is the age when you [begin] to try to establish yourself in life,” says Dr. Swinton. “Once you start off unemployed it makes it harder to get employment in the future. You are more likely to commit crimes. You know that song, ‘Hit the Road Jack’? If the guy can’t help pay the rent in our society, we don’t have much use for those kind of men.”
Young, unemployed and undereducated black men sometimes turn to the street as a viable option.
In his eight-year career as a probation officer in Las Vegas, Christopher Moore says he saw parolees who opted to return to the prison system rather than face the bleak options of today’s job market.
“Employment is difficult to find but even more difficult if you have a record, says Moore. “You are starting from scratch.”
In addition to supervising parolees and probationers, according to Moore, probation officers are charged with helping offenders find employment.
But as employers scale back on hiring to cope with the recession, Moore believes that the rates of recidivism shot up. ”[Offenders often] don’t have skills,” adds Moore, ” They [can] feel as if they are too good to work in a grocery store when they [could] go back to a corner and make [money].”
IN – AND OUT – OF SCHOOL
At just 20 years old, LaRhonda James looks like she should be in a room full of posters of bubble gum R&B groups instead of homeless with a baby due early next year. James occasionally feels nauseous after eating.
Since August 2008, the Bronx native, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, has hopscotched through several New York City shelters. Despite shuttling through the system, James says she continued to work at fast food establishments and then at various retail outlets until she left her job in December last year to begin attending college.
“I decided I was going to college because I wasn’t getting anywhere with minimum wage jobs,” says James, who now regrets leaving her job behind. “I never thought I would be pregnant right now. [Now,] if I need five or 10 dollars, I’m just going to have to need it.”
Although she did manage to attend one semester at a local college, pregnancy forced James to begin adjusting part of her future plans. The 19-year-old unemployed father of her child also left college after completing his freshmen year. With very little consistent work experience between them, both parents-to-be are just now experiencing the sobering reality of joblessness in an age group hit hard by a turbulent, unforgiving economy.
James, who finally landed a job as a telephone interviewer a few weeks ago, says she initially spent approximately 30 hours hunting for work. “I basically gave up,” she says. “I didn’t expect to get a job because of the economy.”
To keep her new part-time job, James has to break curfew requirements at the shelter. On those days, she stays with the father of her child and his parents.
The baby has just begun to kick in her stomach, and despite her grim financial situation, she is keeping her faith.
“I haven’t had a check in so long, [but] I believe in God,” says James. “I feel like if I trust in Him, talk to Him, even though it might not be the things that I want…He will provide for me, if I just have faith.”
And while many like James rely on faith, experts like Swinton believe in the power of preparation and perseverance.
“The rest of us have the responsibility to tell our kids that they need to have the ability to persevere,” Swinton says. “If you don’t prepare yourself in attitude and work ethic, with skills for the labor market you will have a hard time in life.”