Orlando stumbles as he tries to move up the economic ladder

A thin resume, lack of education, felony record and tough neighborhood with few jobs are all stacked up against Orlando.

October 25, 2012

(Sarah Karp/WBEZ)

Orlando may be striking out in the job market. But he has a valuable skill set.

He's got a flair for fixing cars.

He learned from his father who used to tinker with cars and would summon a young Orlando to assist him. At age 13, he got a chance to prove himself.

"He had one day and asked me to put brakes on his car. Left the car there, went into the house. I’m like dag, for real?" Orlando recalled. "So I know to put the jack up under the car, take the lugs first then jack the car. Take the wheels off. Put the brakes on there. Put the wheels back on there and call him. He came back out there and drove the car. The car was riding fine. He said 'See boy, you learned the brakes now I gotta learn you about all the other stuff."

Those skills have allowed 30-year-old Orlando to enter what's called the "underground" or "informal" economy. These are jobs that aren't taxed and are under the government's radar. These are often jobs that involve service: fixing someone's car, house cleaning and child care. But they are also sometimes jobs like drug dealing or prostitution. People hustling to get by when they don’t have jobs in the traditional labor force.

For Orlando, it means laboring in the garage behind his house. There, he's created a makeshift mechanic shop. Working on cars gives him a sense of dignity and allows him to contribute to his household. Some weeks Orlando can earn several hundred dollars.

The busy season is on the horizon.

"It’s finna to get cold. See now this the time I know I really make some money in the wintertime. People’s motors get locked up, transmissions go out," he said.

But there are weeks when he’s lucky to pull in $25. Orlando never went to school for mechanics and he doesn’t have a license. That prevents him from working in a franchise or licensed shop.

The impact of the underground economy

Jobs in the underground economy are all too common in Orlando’s Chicago Englewood neighborhood where unemployment is a whopping 25 percent.

"I gotta another friend who work on cars. It ain’t too much of nothing to do around here but that. Especially around here that’s the only way I can see you coming up around here. Only thing I can see. Loose cigarettes, shoes, hats everything for sale."

Big retail has, by and large, left Englewood. What’s left in the neighborhood are dots of vacant land and blight. One of the most devastating factors of economic mobility is where you live. Without quality education, good jobs and solid social connections, your chances at moving up the economic ladder are few and far between. And Englewood faces stigmatization because of its sizeable poor, black population. That stigmatization can morph into stereotypes that impact job seekers.

Twenty years ago researchers studied hiring and racial biases. A survey of Chicago-area firms revealed that employers avoided recruitment in poor black neighborhood -- like Englewood.

It’s no wonder that workers turn to the underground economy.

While studies have shown that billions of dollars are lost in taxes to this economy, it’s a necessity in some communities. Urban planner Nik Theodore teaches at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He said unmet labor needs explain the underground economy.

"Informal work really does occur across the economy as a whole," Theodore said. "But it’s most highly concentrated in those low- and moderate-income communities where job opportunities are the fewest and where people have the hardest time accessing opportunities elsewhere within the metropolitan area."

Day laboring, babysitting, janitorial services. Licit and illicit activity. The underground economy won’t be the boost Orlando needs to live the American Dream or move from rung A to rung B on the economic ladder. It barely keeps Orlando afloat.

Orlando loves Englewood. This is where his friends and family are. He’s never lived anywhere else. It’s home. But the neighborhood’s blemishes aren’t lost on him.

"You can tell a nice neighborhood because you can see ain’t no trash, ain’t nothing on the ground. Grass nice and cut. You can tell when you get up around here. We got all these empty lots, cans, stuff laying around. I know when I be back in the neighborhood."

Orlando has mused on what his life would be like if he had grown up in a resource-rich neighborhood elsewhere in Chicago. He doesn’t normally talk about moving out of Englewood. He doesn’t have the current social capital to do so. With no job or sustainable income on the horizon, Orlando is stuck. And without a car or steady money, he rarely leaves the neighborhood, instead hanging out with his friends and playing softball.

On this particular day, Orlando mulled over an exit strategy.

"I was born and raised here and said I’d never leave though. But if I get an opportunity or chance to better my life, I’m gone. I can always still come back and see my old man and all them and the people I see in the neighborhood. But the values…you can’t even get too much for a house around here. You got vacant lot, vacant lot, vacant lot. Our economy, it ain’t right. It ain’t right," he said.

Orlando said he’s never going back to drug dealing. Some of his friends are still on corners, hustling and slinging drugs. He said some of his friends can barely count money because they dropped out of elementary school.

The difference a good influence can make

But he has some friends who are on the ball -- like Sammy Pack Jr. who lives a few blocks away from Orlando. They met 10 years ago and know each other from the neighborhood. They bonded over a love of cars.

Thirty-one-year-old Sammy lives on an attractive block full of bungalows and neatly cut grass. Sammy joked that his lawn is the worst. His Englewood neighbors are the types who call you at work if they see someone suspicious on your front porch.

"A lot of people in Englewood are working people. Working-class, taxpaying people. We just get a bad rap. A lot of incidents kind of label the whole community and everybody that lives in the community," Sammy said.

An Iraqi veteran and current machinist at a steel company, Sammy has been encouraging Orlando.

"He does want a job. But I think he has no faith in the system, which a lot of black men in his situation, they don’t have faith in the system. They’re discouraged," Sammy said. "He wants to do better but he’s very discouraged. He feels a lot of things are against him; and they are, you know?

But Sammy said he stays on him without sounding like an older uncle. He tells Orlando about job fairs and how to get his record expunged.

"I think he could be taking a lot more advantage. It’s that same sad song where ‘they’re not going to hire me.’ Because he has tried so many times and he’s been knocked down so many times. It’s at the point where sometimes he’s sluggish to get up. The bounce back isn’t as resilient as it was. He does understand at the same time he needs to something to progress because he’s not getting any younger," Sammy said.

Orlando is trying. In fact, he’s at a crossroads of sorts.

At a crossroads

Months ago, the family computer broke down. In September, Orlando’s father Mr. Abe bought a new one so his sons could search online for jobs and school programs. Orlando’s frustration is at a flashpoint. He’s identified alternatives in lieu of not finding a job.

"I say I either go to go school if I can’t find no job by the end of this month. Go mess with this," Orlando said as he pointed to paperwork on the dining room table about an airplane mechanic school out of state.

"I’mma try to see if I can go downtown and get my background expunged and I say I just go to the Army," he said.

Orlando is also reflecting on his legacy. He figures if he hasn’t yet fulfilled his American Dream, he might get another chance through his 11-year-old son. Little Orlando lives with his mom in Wisconsin. He gets straight As.

"I want him to go to school. Don’t do what I did. Don’t do the streets. Graduate high school, go to college. Better yourself, take care of yourself. Get you a good working job, get your own place. I want him to do everything that I should’ve been doing that I ain’t doing right now. I hope he can do it," Orlando said.

Orlando thinks his son can do it, away from the empty lots and unemployment of Englewood.