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A Little Work Never Hurt Anyone—Including Teenagers

The Lazy bastard, staring at their social media screens, playing HS sports, taking AP courses. Personally, at Spritzler Technical Institute we're looking for a kid who's pulling double shifts on a drilling while studying Integral Calculus in their spare time.

A Little Work Never Hurt Anyone—Including Teenagers

Over objections from Big Labor, governors of both parties work to ease limits on youth employment.

By Jason L. Riley, WSJ

April 11, 2023 5:54 pm ET

The U.S. unemployment rate in March was just 3.5%, but among teenagers it was 9.8%—close to three times as high. It’s not unusual to have a higher teen jobless rate, but it’s a situation that deserves more attention from policy makers when labor markets remain extremely tight.

The labor-force participation rate for teenagers has been falling for more than 40 years, and the decline in the past two decades has been especially sharp. In 1978, labor-force participation among 16- to 19-year-olds was nearly 60%, and 20 years later it was still above 50%. Today, it’s only 37%, even while job openings are as plentiful as ever.

One reason fewer young people work is minimum-wage laws can make them too expensive to hire, an economic reality that proponents play down or simply ignore. Another cause can be labor laws that make it illegal to hire teenagers at any wage, a situation that a growing number of states are moving to change.

Axios reported on current efforts in Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio and other states to ease teenage work requirements. With the permission of a parent or legal guardian, 14-year-olds could work later into the evening all year long, and 15-year-olds could be hired for positions currently off-limits to anyone under 18. Last year, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey signed bipartisan legislation that allows 16-year-olds to work up to 50 hours a week during summer break and 14-year-olds to work up to 40 hours a week when not in school.

Last month in Arkansas, Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed the Youth Hiring Act, which nixes the requirement that 14- and 15-year-olds get permission from the state to work. “It’s apparently not enough for democrats to trap kids in failing schools. They also want to make it harder for teenagers to work part time or summer jobs,” Ms. Sanders wrote on Twitter after signing the bill. “In Arkansas the days of trapping our people in poverty, welfare and government dependency are over.”

Those days may be over in Arkansas, but they continue in California, where Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom mocked Ms. Sanders over the new law. “Gotta admit—loosening child labor laws was not on my Top 10 List for our CA legislative session this year,” Mr. Newsom tweeted. He’s right to note that California and Arkansas have different priorities. Last year, at the urging of labor unions, Mr. Newsom signed legislation that allows the cost of hiring a fast-food worker to increase by an average of 41%.

A New York Times editorial likewise attacked Ms. Sanders and her state for being “at the vanguard of a concerted effort by business lobbyists and Republican legislators to roll back federal and state regulations that have been in place for decades to protect children from abuse.” Like Mr. Newsom, the paper ignores that some Democrats, such as Mr. Murphy, also favor easing work restrictions for young people. To buttress its case, the Times cites reports of U.S. employers exploiting undocumented migrant children. But that’s already illegal, and the proper response is prosecuting the offenders, not limiting the ability of able-bodied teenagers to fill jobs with parental approval.

The reality is that opponents of these state laws are carrying water for Big Labor. The goal is not protecting children. Rather, it’s protecting the pay of current employees by restricting the supply of labor. To the extent that unions can limit employment opportunities, they can command higher wages for existing workers because employers have fewer alternatives.

Easing work requirements for young people won’t end the labor shortage, but it will almost certainly help. It will also help young people who take advantage of opportunities to enter the labor force sooner. Among other things, putting teenagers to work can go a long way toward increasing their earnings later in life and keeping them out of trouble with the law. It lays the foundation for productive work habits. You learn the importance of being punctual and dependable. You gain experience that is worth more than your paycheck.

Research also shows that gainful employment is strongly correlated with a reduction in delinquent behavior. An analysis of New York City’s summer youth employment program, the nation’s largest, concluded that participation “decreases the chance that youth are arrested during the program summer by 17 percent and decreases the chance that they are arrested for a felony during the program summer by 23 percent.” Similar programs in Chicago and Boston “have found relatively large reductions in the number of times at-risk youth are arrested for violent and other serious crimes in the year or two after the program ends.”

If we want safer streets and a brighter future for our children, how about focusing more on expanding job opportunities and less on bail reform?

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