The Minimum Wage Movement Disowns Teenagers

The Minimum Wage Movement Disowns Teenagers

 February 17, 2014

Ignore the phony pieties. Politicians’ and interests’ history of screwing over young people at every juncture in order to reward corporate and elder interests leaves no reason to credit anyone Left to Right with genuine concern about how raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour might affect teenaged workers.

For the record, the consensus of honest research seems to be that a higher minimum wage has no or negligible effects on net youth employment (slight decreases in low-skilled teen workers are offset by increases in work for more skilled teens) and general benefits for young workers in higher average wages. A plus, overall.

But the reality, as in other debates, is that teenagers are just pawns to exploit for whatever immediate argument a policy combatant wanted to make anyway. All sides “worry about the kids,” then all sides agree to shaft them.

Consider recent history. The Lilly Ledbetter (so-called) Fair Pay Act protects older workers but allows arbitrary discrimination in firing or not hiring young workers not because of their qualifications or performance, but solely because of young age. The Affordable Care Act caps health insurance rates for older insurees by shifting millions of dollars in premium costs to younger ones. Marijuana legalization lobbies promote more legal highs for adults while advocating continued or intensified arrest and prohibitionist policies aimed at young people.

Credit policy reformers, ignoring the real causes of young people’s debt, simply banned persons under 21 from getting credit cards without older co-signers. Public aid for the elderly and corporations is maintained at robust levels, while aid for the poorer young is disparaged, localized, and slashed.

Generational distancing, preparatory to tossing young people under the bus, is well under way again. The Economic Policy Institute’s key study reports that “the workers who would receive a raise do not fit the stereotypes of low-wage workers” in that half are age 35 or older, 88% are 20 and older, and more are over age 54 than under age 20. President Obama is the latest advocate to recite the movement’s cloned talking point on minimum-wage workers that “they’re not teenagers,” but, rather, respectable, deserving older folks.

Here’s what the president and progressive groups could be saying: “Teenagers comprise only 12% of workers who would benefit from a minimum wage increase, but as the poorest age group (only children suffer higher poverty rates), their wages are vital to families and to defray skyrocketing higher education costs.”

But fair treatment of young people isn’t good politics. Surveys such as Public Agenda’s showing Americans typecast teenagers as spoiled, immoral, and generally rotten. Therefore, to the extent the public and policy makers believe raising the minimum wage would benefit teens, support shrivels.

In the minimum-wage debate, one negative stereotype about teenagers is particularly relevant: that working teens are just kids grabbing “extra money” (as OurTime.org put it) for dates and gadgets and frivolous nonessentials. In fact, teenagers are not characterized by blingy Smartphone richies wallowing in “affluenza.” The Census reports that in 2012, 18% of 16-19 year-olds lived in households with incomes below meager federal poverty guidelines, and 30% on incomes below or barely above poverty levels—much worse than older populations.

Further, the biggest cause of debt for teenagers and young adults is education costs, which have soared as universities have raised tuitions and fees at rates four times faster than normal inflation—as, in turn, older taxpayers have voted to cut their taxes at the expense of forcing more costs on students. Education loan debts among the young—some $1 trillion at present—represents a burden today’s middle-agers and seniors largely were spared.

A number of studies show that stereotypes aside, teenage workers are just as productive as older workers. Nevertheless, Congress and interests have tied minimum wage increases and protections for older workers to a disgraceful “subminimum wage” arbitrarily imposed on new workers under age 20, which is now federally set at a miserable $4.25 per hour. This subminimum wage is pegged to the 90-day summer employment season, allowing fast-food, agriculture, and other mega-industries (ones that contribute heavily to lawmakers’ campaigns) to continue ripping off teen workers in 3-month hire-fire cycles.

On the minimum wage as on other issues such as gun violence, drugs, and rape, progressive groups quail from challenging destructive stereotypes toward teenagers. To the contrary; they embrace anti-youth stereotypes as an excuse to disown the young from their reforms.
The cumulative effect of four decades of legal and monetary discriminations against young Americans in favor of older and wealthier ones has resulted in widening generational splits in income. Census figures show that in 1970, Americans age 45-64 earned just 5% more than those age 18-34. Today, after healthy real growth in older-household incomes and stagnation in younger-household incomes, 43% more. Does anyone on the progressive side care? No word yet.

This new and startling American landscape is one in which the old not only cannot be trusted to look out for the interests of the young, but actively deny resources to younger and future generations. Like other groups in the past, young people will have to organize to defend themselves—especially when they hear rhetoric from leaders and interests about how deeply they care about young people.