Challenging time for blacks. Teen unemployment is critically high, especially in cities

It's been a long, hot summer for black teens seeking jobs. And if recent statistics are any indication, the prospects aren't any cooler.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2 out of every 5 black teen-agers in the United States do not have jobs this summer. Even worse, the National Urban League estimates that in some inner-city neighborhoods the black teen-age unemployment rate has reached 50 to 60 percent.

``Against these odds, it is no small wonder that staggering proportions of our young people are being forced to conclude that they have no chance to obtain and hold a decent job,'' says James W. Compton, president of the Chicago Urban League.

Labor Secretary William E. Brock made a similar observation in a speech to the National Urban League this week, noting an absence of hope and optimism among many young blacks.

Mr. Brock added: ``I have balled my fists in quiet frustration and in angry disappointment -- and have wondered where hope had gone for these young men and women, and why it was missing in the first place.''

The comments of both men were made more in recognition of what is at stake in America today, than as an admission of defeat.

In a Capitol Hill hearing this week, Urban League presidents from across the country told how their organizations are successfully improving opportunities for blacks and others who have been left behind in the nation's economic recovery. They chronicled a range of efforts, including a computer-skills program in Los Angeles, a hands-on apprenticeship effort in Little Rock, Ark., and an innovative housing-renovation project in New York, which uses unemployed youth.

But the leaders stressed that their efforts alone were not enough.

John E. Jacob, president of the National Urban League, is calling for the establishment of a national full-employment policy, with job creation programs designed to end ``depression-level unemployment'' among blacks. He also advocates an increased commitment to training programs and improved education.

Mr. Jacob stresses the need to bring disadvantaged people into the growth sectors of the economy -- high technology and service organizations -- rather than simply placing them in dying industries in the ``rust belt.''

It is ``predominately black and minority Americans who have been excluded from this recovery and who are likely to become increasingly less relevant to a post-industrial economy unless steps are taken now,'' Jacob says.

Hardest hit of all have been minority teens. For many of them the problem of finding a job is complicated not only by racial discrimination but also by the fact that many of them are said to have criminal records or to be unwed mothers, school dropouts, or drug addicts.

The Reagan administration's primary response to the teen-age unemployment problem has been to propose the establishment of a ``youth employment opportunity wage'' -- a $2.50-an-hour subminimum wage for teens. The administration maintains that the program could create from 150,000 to 400,000 new jobs for young workers.

The idea is to draw back into the economy small and odd jobs that have been priced out of the labor market by the current $3.35-an-hour minimum wage. Theoretically, an unemployed teen-ager would rather earn $2.50 an hour as a busboy, movie usher, or leaf raker than grow cobwebs in his wallet while hanging out on street corners.

The concept has gained the support of groups such as the National Conference of Black Mayors, the Boys Club of America, and the American GI Forum of the United States. It is opposed by organized labor, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and, most recently, the Urban League.

``A subminimum wage carries the potential of structurally binding poor young people into a subsistence-wage category. It will lock them in there,'' says Douglas Glasgow, vice-president of the National Urban League's Washington office.

``Many of these kids are parents, so they can't make it on a subminimum wage,'' says Harriet Michel, president of the New York league.

In his speech, Brock noted, ``The youth wage isn't the solution to 43 percent unemployment among black teen-agers. It isn't the answer to 24 percent unemployment among our Hispanic youngsters. . . . Sure, these kids need training and remediation, too. But they also need to break this vicious Catch 22: no experience -- no job, no job -- no experience.''

Christopher Quarles III of the Labor Department says administration officials don't view the program as a panacea, but they want to test the program to see if it might help ease teen-age unemployment.

``It deserves a chance to show its worth,'' Mr. Quarles says.

Congress will determine whether the youth employment opportunity wage gets that chance. So far the measure has 23 Senate co-sponsors and 60 in the House.

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