Get Teens Back to Work: Why the Federal Government Must Invest Now in Teen Jobs

Algernon Austin
July 28, 2011

Let’s
hope that American teens have a lot of good, clean fun this summer because the
vast majority of them certainly won’t be working. While that may be enjoyable
for teens, it’s not good for America.

In
a country where growing numbers of young adults are neither working nor looking
for work, we need to do more to create teen jobs and establish the habit of
working.

The
teen labor market is collapsing and taking the benefits of work with it. In
2000, 45 percent of America’s teens were employed during the summer. This
summer only about 25 percent of teens will have a job. This precipitous drop in
employment will lead to the worst teen summer employment rate since World War
II.

The
crisis in the teen labor market is partly a reflection of the massive jobs
deficit that the country faces. We are still 6.9 million jobs below the level
of employment we had at the start of the recession in December 2007. Since then,
the working-age population has grown by 4.1 million. Altogether, that means we
are actually short 11 million jobs.

For
teens, the Great Recession has hit hard. Since 2007, teen summer employment has
declined nine percentage points while summer employment for all workers has
only declined four percentage points.

The
decline of the teen labor market pre-dates the recession, however, as Andrew
Sum and his colleagues at the Center for Labor Market Studies have shown. In
the summer of 2007, before the recession, the teen summer employment rate had
already dropped 11 percentage points from its 2000 level to 34 percent.

This
decline in teen employment has had a disproportionate impact on low-income and
minority teens. Poor teens are less likely than middle class teens to find
summer jobs, and poor African American teens are much less likely to find work
than poor white teens. Poor Hispanics are better off than poor African
Americans, but worse off than poor whites.

The
situation for poor African Americans is compounded by the fact that they tend
to live in neighborhoods with other low-income families and the deprivations in
community resources that result. In contrast, many poor whites live in
middle-class neighborhoods, and they can benefit from the resources available
in these neighborhoods.

All
of these factors lead to a situation where teens who would likely benefit most
from summer jobs – poor, African American teens - are the least likely to find
them.

It’s
important to appreciate the depth of these benefits. Summer jobs allow youth to
be productive during the summer. Adolescents earn money for themselves and save
money for educational expenses during the school year. Over the long term, teens
who work tend to do better in school and continue working into their twenties.

Although
it is difficult to address the needs of teen workers during a recession, we can’t
ignore this growing problem. With the private-sector barely increasing
employment, it is necessary for the federal government to step in with bold job
creation initiatives.

Without
federal intervention, we can expect years more of high unemployment across the
board and very low summer employment rates for teens. If our leaders decide to
enact large cuts to the federal budget the outcome will be even worse. Reduced
federal spending would lead to significant job losses and the continued
collapse of the teen labor market. Even once the economy recovers, we will
still need additional job creation resources for teens.

The
good news is that there have been several effective youth summer employment
programs that can serve as models. In the 1970s, the Youth Incentive
Entitlement Pilot Program not only increased youth employment in the targeted
cities, it achieved the impressive result of virtually eliminating the
black-white employment rate disparity for youth in those cities. Given the
persistent severity of this disparity, we should learn from any model that has
eliminated it.

There
are also other, more recent examples of effective programs. In 2009, the Youth
Workforce System received additional funding from the American Recovery and
Reinvestment Act and created over 300,000 summer jobs for youth. Even more jobs
may have been created through additional funding.

Finally,
we need to reinstate the federal Summer Youth Employment Program. The Summer
Youth Employment Program put over a half a million youth to work during the
summer from the 1960s to the 1990s. Reinstating this program would serve as a
countervailing force against the rising numbers of disconnected youth who are
neither in school nor working.

The
teen employment crisis is genuine, but it can be solved. Once youth get into
the habit of working, they become less likely to stop. Making an investment in
teens now will ensure they have a better chance of continuing to work
throughout their lifetimes.


Algernon Austin is the director of the
Race, Ethnicity, and Economy Program at the Economic Policy Institute.  This commentary was originally published on Spotlight on Poverty & Opportunity, and is reprinted here with permission.

 


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