No Work for the Willing

By Marian Wright Edelman and Andrew Sum

When I was a young man I observed that nine out of ten things I did were failures. I didn’t want to be a failure, so I did ten times more work.
– George Bernard Shaw

Most young men and women today want to work hard, but for those under 25 years old, work has often been impossible to find. Young people ages 16 to 24 are among the greatest casualties of our economic downfall. Even college graduates have had an extremely tough time finding a job, any job; forget about full-time meaningful work in their area of study.

These teens and young adults have been forgotten in the fierce public debates about how best to create jobs for the huge numbers of the unemployed. The country shed 7.9 million jobs during the Great Recession between 2007 and 2009, and during the slow recovery desperate laid-off older workers took any jobs they could get, often jobs requiring fewer skills for lower pay. Entry level jobs for high school and college graduates disappeared. Other young people and teens got pushed out of the labor market completely. They have faced sharp rises in unemployment and underemployment, and the largest declines in employment rates. Teenagers have been hardest hit.

During the economic boom times in 2000, slightly more than 45 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds were employed. By 2010, only 26 percent were employed, a new post-World War II low. Most disturbing, while overall employment throughout the country has been rising since early 2010, the nation’s teens have not seen any increase in their employment opportunities. We ignore this crisis at our peril.

Research shows teen employment helps achieve many positive outcomes for youths, their families, and the rest of society. Teens who work in high school, especially those from low-income and lower middle-income families, are less likely to drop out of high school, become teen parents, or engage in criminal behavior. For poor families, teen salaries often help put food on the table and keep the lights on.

The young Americans who will be our future workforce also aren’t learning the critical soft skills they will need to succeed — good attendance, proper work behavior, customer service, teamwork, and technical job skills. Learning the value of hard work and the deep satisfaction that comes from a job well done will stay with teens for their lifetime. Work experience also makes it easier to get a job later on. Early work experience is a win-win-win proposition for teens, their families, and for the country.

Certainly during this presidential election year, all the candidates should be talking about our teen employment crisis. Newt Gingrich addressed it by blaming Black Americans for accepting food stamps rather than demanding jobs (many food stamp recipients work), and then blaming poor children for lacking a strong work ethic and proposing giving them jobs as janitors in their schools. Mr. Gingrich turned it into a divisive conversation about race rather than jump-starting a national conversation about the millions of missing jobs for teens and young adults.

Mr. Gingrich’s home state of Georgia makes a dramatic case for urgent interventions for teen workers. Back in 2000, the average annual teen employment rate in Georgia was identical to the national rate. By 2010 it had dropped from 46 percent to 19 percent, eight percentage points below the national average, and tied with California and Mississippi for the lowest teen employment rate in the country.

In Georgia, teen unemployment was an equal opportunity offender. All gender, race, ethnic, and family income groups experienced steep declines in teen employment rates during that ten year period, but the state’s low- and lower middle-income youths were the least likely to be employed in 2010. Only 16 percent of teens in families with incomes below $40,000 worked while 27 percent of teenagers in middle- to upper middle-income families worked. For Black youths it was even worse; only 12 percent in low-income families worked.

If we continue to ignore these dire facts, not only do we fail our children, we put the future economic security of America at risk. It is past time for those who would like to lead our nation to greater economic health over the next four years to tell us how they plan to get our young people back to work. They need summer and year-round jobs, public and private sector jobs, and paid work experiences with educational and training opportunities to prepare them for the future. Most young people want to work and are willing to work. Right now there is no work.

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