A movement to create a separate lower minimum wage for teens has recently sprouted up in the commonwealth, prompted by a nationwide rise in youth unemployment. Its proponents, like the author of a recent opinion piece published in this paper, tend to claim that rising youth unemployment is associated with a high minimum wage, that teens work primarily to build character, and that the amount of money they make is therefore of little consequence. These assumptions are misguided and do not reflect the reality of most Massachusetts communities.
Declining teen employment numbers reflect a national, cultural trend unassociated with a rising minimum wage. According to the U.S. Labor Department, Massachusetts actually has the third-lowest rate of teen unemployment at 8.7%, despite having the third-highest minimum wage in the nation. Georgia, on the other hand, which boasts an appalling youth minimum wage of $4.25, has a teen unemployment rate of 20.8%. These figures imply that the nationwide decline in youth unemployment is associated with factors other than the minimum wage, like an emphasis on extracurricular activities, and the fact that more teens now attend college.
A lower teen minimum wage will be harmful for economically disadvantaged communities, where teens really need the money that they work for. While, in the wealthier towns of the commonwealth, teens may work mainly as a character-building exercise, in the blue-collar cities, teens work for a paycheck. In the working-class neighborhood of Salem where I grew up, practically everyone I knew had a job. It helped us build character, yes, but it also provided the crucial funds that allowed us to afford the rising cost of college, pay for housing, and to help with family expenses. To pay for college, I needed to come up with $10,000 per year — no small feat for someone working a minimum-wage job while attending school — and most of my friends had similar financial burdens.
For many of us, a loss of 20% of our income would make the cost of college prohibitively expensive, and would be a devastating blow to the community. To view teen employment as primarily a means to build character represents the distorted vision of a certain wealthy subset of Massachusetts, and it would be unwise to impose this perception on the commonwealth at large.
The rising minimum wage is good for everyone, teens included. Many proponents of the teen minimum wage point to businesses cutting teen working hours as a negative effect of the minimum wage increase. This actually should be a positive effect. If young people are able to work less hours for the same amount of money, it will free up more of their time to focus on school, extracurriculars and athletics which will create more skilled, well-rounded individuals. Additionally, teens spend money just like adults do, and the less cash that ends up in their hands, the less they are able to spend at local businesses and grow the local economy.
The best way to serve communities like Salem and Lynn is to acknowledge and respect the financial burdens that are placed on their teens, and to stand up to this push to slash their wages.
Guthrie Scrimgeour is a Salem native who graduated from Carnegie Mellon University this spring with a degree in international relations.