NPR reports today that the national teen unemployment rate is 25%. In Washington, DC, teen employment is at a staggering 50%. NPR also tells us that the last time teen unemployment topped 20% was 1981 - but that this is the third summer in a row that it's been above 20%.
The piece doesn't do a very good job of dealing with the potential fallout or implication of teen unemployment, though of course one of the two teens they interview gets it right away: ""I'm going to my senior year, so it's like, how am I supposed to help gather the extra money to go to college?" he [Jacquan Clark] says."
Instead, NPR subtly turns the focus to outcomes for the longer-term future of those kids, and, more importantly, the outcomes for present-day bosses and hiring, heavily citing Michael Saltsman, a research fellow at the Employment Policies Institute, offering this nugget: "But working a summer job as a teen is not just about earning extra spending money. Saltsman says it's also about learning skills so you can become a good worker later in your adult life."
Yes. This is true. It's great to have work on your resume straight away - it helps in hiring, in applying for all manner of things, it helps you mature and learn things and blah blah blah. All of those things are important, don't get me wrong. But the real immediate stakes are potentially even bigger, and Jacquan Clark hits it on the head: what about college?
There are a lot - a lot of teenagers who depend on their summer or year-round part-time jobs for more than just "extra spending money." I know I needed my jobs for any spending money, but also for things like buying clothes, traveling home from college, eventually buying a car and helping to pay for my semester abroad. And I was pretty well off; I had friends whose jobs paid for their college, period. With the cost of tuition rising everywhere, and student loans getting harder to get, teenagers, especially those from less privileged backgrounds (and I'm not even talking about truly poor backgrounds, though of course they are included), need every red cent they can accrue. For some, working really is the difference between going to college and not going.
It's very hard to "take a year off" between high school and college to earn money; it's hard to get back into the mode of academia. Taking standardized tests and applying along with your own class cohort streamlines the entire process, and keeps you moving along the college-bound track. The minute you step off that track, it takes you double or triple the number of steps to get back on.
Jacquan Clark, the teenager in NPR's piece, mentions the cost of college applications, which he will evidently be on the hook for. This adds up rapidly; where are those hundreds of dollars supposed to come from, if a parent can't or won't supply them?
This also ignores the fact that there are, in fact, teenagers in this country whose families depend at least partially on that teenager's income. Poor is poor is poor, and every dollar is needed. In other situations, a teenager's income goes to pay for everything he or she might need beyond the absolute basics of home and food: clothing, new shoes, adequate winter gear, school lunch, transportation, test or other school-related fees. None of that covers the other "necessaries" of teenage life, like the right kind of clothes, or an iPod, or a cellphone, or bits of cash for going for coffee or to diners or the movies or whatever it is teenagers do these days.
It's good that NPR is reporting on this - definitely good, and I applaud and appreciate that. But it is disgraceful that their focus is not so much on how this impacts teenagers qua teenagers, but on how it impacts them as future cogs in the capitalist machine.