Summer Blues

Summertime . . . and the livin' is not that easy for black teens. The summer jobs that used to keep kids busy and teach them marketable skills seem to have dried up in the summer heat. But it wasn't always this way. Black economist Walter Williams paints a picture of a much different life when he was growing up in the 1940s. "I delivered packages, pumped gasoline, . . . picked fresh fruit and vegetables, and washed dishes," Williams writes in a recent column. And "it wasn't only me," he adds. "All the kids in our housing project who wanted to work had jobs." What an astounding statement. Today unemployment is a plague of the inner city. But just 50 years ago, Williams writes—and I repeat—"All the kids in our housing project who wanted to work had jobs." Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics back him up. In 1948 unemployment among black teens was a mere nine percent—even lower than among white teens. Where have all those jobs gone? The main culprit, says Williams, are minimum-wage laws. The current minimum wage is $4.25 an hour. But to get the true cost of hiring someone, you have to add on all the benefits mandated by government—Social Security, worker's compensation, and so on. Which drives the total cost to well over $6.00 an hour. That means a prospective employer has to ask himself, does this worker's labor produce $6.00 an hour for the company? If the answer is no, the company cannot afford to hire him. Think of it this way: Every time the government increases the minimum wage, it puts a higher price tag on low-skilled labor. Companies that cannot afford the higher price cannot hire the workers. The minimum wage essentially prices them out of the market. Today we're hearing a renewed debate in Congress over the minimum wage with many voices clamoring for another increase. It's a proposal that, if passed, is guaranteed to create another surge in unemployed teens. A better idea might be to set a special wage just for teenagers—a wage that allows them to earn less money while gaining workplace experience: learning to be punctual, reliable, accountable, and all the other intangible skills that make workers more employable. All through the Bible Christians are commanded to care about justice for the poor. One way we can do that is by judiciously weighing the economic effects of legislation. Minimum-wage laws were implemented with good intentions: to help the poor. But their actual effect in many cases is to eliminate jobs for poor teenagers—blocking them from working their way out of poverty. The ideal would be to restore the freedom employers had when Walter Williams was a youngster. "I'd go up to a store manager and ask whether he had any odd jobs for me to do," Williams writes. It might be collecting trash or sweeping the floor. But it was something an unskilled teen could start with—and work his way up. This is what our youth need today: a booster step up into the job market. Not just for a summer job, but for a lifetime of opportunity.


Chuck Colson


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