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Illinois Is Killing Black Opportunity

Illinois is home to a vicious cycle that prevents its black residents from reaching their full potential, and too little attention is being paid to the numbers driving it.
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Illinois is home to a vicious cycle that prevents its black residents from reaching their full potential, and too little attention is being paid to the numbers driving it.

For starters, less than half of working-age black adults in Illinois are employed.

Those who can find work make 25 percent less than Illinois' median household income of $56,250. The median household income for black Illinoisans is just $34,815, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2013 American Community Survey.

But why?

Part of what's driving this disparity in income and employment is the fact that so many in Illinois' black community are trapped in a public education system that is failing to prepare them to succeed.

In the 2011-2012 school year, just 68 percent of black students graduated on time from Illinois' public school system, compared to 82 percent of the total student population.

In Chicago, three out of 10 freshmen at Chicago Public Schools, or CPS, don't graduate on time. In 2009, the Chicago Sun-Times shared results from a report from the City Colleges of Chicago, or CCC, showing that of the more than 2,800 CPS high-school graduates heading straight into CCC, 71 percent needed remedial reading, 81 percent needed remedial English and 94 percent needed remedial math.

This comes with sobering consequences. The dropout-to-prison pipeline is all too real for many Illinoisans. Four in five Illinois prisoners didn't graduate high school; just 8 percent had some undergraduate experience; and only 1.2 percent graduated college.

So not only are black Illinoisans trapped in failing schools, struggling to find employment and making less money when they do find work, but they also make up a majority of the state's prison population.

That's right, a majority. In 2012, Illinois' prison population was 57 percent black, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections' Fiscal Year 2012 Annual Report. Conversely, black Illinoisans made up only 13 percent of the state's workforce, according to data from the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

Once someone has a record, it's incredibly difficult to find work. Unfortunately, Illinois prisoners also have a 51.7 percent chance of being back behind bars again within three years.

And not only is it harder for anyone with a criminal record to get hired; it's sometimes impossible for them to strike out on their own. The government can legally refuse to provide certain professional or occupational licenses to anyone with a criminal record.

According to The Crime Report, there are about 57 professions in Illinois from which you can be barred if you have a criminal record. One example exists in the state's barber act. The law reads:

(1) The Department may refuse to issue or renew, and may suspend, revoke, place on probation, reprimand or take any other disciplinary action as the Department may deem proper, including civil penalties not to exceed $500 for each violation, with regard to any license for any one, or any combination, of the following causes:
a. Conviction of any crime under the laws of the United States or any state or territory thereof that is (i) a felony, (ii) a misdemeanor, an essential element of which is dishonesty, or (iii) a crime which is related to the practice of the profession.

The cycle of black poverty in Illinois is real. Bad schools beget dropouts; dropouts and a biased criminal justice system beget criminal records; and criminal records and biased licensing requirements kill opportunity.

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