Reforming Minimum Wage: “Training Wheels for Employment”

Now that Weiner is out of the way, let’s get back to a more pressing issue: jobs. It’s something that Obama and the Democrats haven’t been doing well on (though I’m not convinced the Republicans have the silver bullet, either.) The most recent unemployment figure rolled out has it back up at 9.1%. But that’s not really a big problem. The real big problem is here is what unemployment is doing to our youth, those aged 16-19. Looking at Table A-16 and doing a little math to combine enrolled and unenrolled, it’s 24%.

And that’s only today’s problem. Like most things political, it’s an even bigger and more disastrous issue for our country down the road. That’s why just tinkering at the edges isn’t going to help; we need to do drastic things. My solution: totally overhaul how minimum wage works, with an eye towards helping youngsters find employment.

You need a combination of two things to land a job: education and experience. As a teenager, you really don’t have experience, and whatever you’re getting out of school, its not an education. An employer could hire you, at at least $7.25 an hour, but when there are older, more experienced workers jostling for any job in this economy, why? You have no skills, no record, and who knows if you’ll be at work on time. It’s a vicious Catch-22, where you need skills and experience to get a job, and a job to get skills and experience. The only role the minimum wage law plays in this is keeping these kids unemployed and unemployable.

Some may ask: should kids be working anyways? Shouldn’t they be going to Boy Scouts, cracking their heads open on the fifty-yard line while dad screams his head off, enjoying their adolesence? Maybe, but that’s shortsighted. Let’s fast forward to the year 2025. Thanks to simple demographics, our workforce has been depleted. Employers must turn to newer, younger workers. Unfortunately, many of these have never been hired, even if they have a college degree. They don’t know how to work. They don’t show up on time. They fight with coworkers, they’re unprofessional to customers, vendors, and maybe even management. They can’t be trusted with money or company secrets. An entire generation that can’t work in the workplace—as Harvard University economist Lawrence Katz says (in a column by National Journal writer Ronald Brownstein) a “lost generation.” Granted, he was talking more about college grads, it’s really the same thing, just differing in timing and intensity. Cue outsourcing and offshoring, round two.

So what do we do? What could possibly be a politically viable solution? Some here may suggest gutting minimum wage entirely, but that won’t fly in Washington or much of the nation. My solution, instead, is to create a graduated minimum wage, “training wheels” for employment. It’s simple: those aged 18-19 are eligible to receive 75% of the minimum wage, 16-17 can earn 50% of the minimum wage, and those 14-15 can receive 25% of the minimum wage. This creates a curve, whereby youth can get used to steadily increasing pay and become more comfortable working. (It also looks fancy, which is nice for politicians.)

The benefits would be enormous: first, we’d get young Americans working again, bringing down the unemployment rate for them and overall. Most employers will see hiring teenagers at that rate to be a bargain, something they can put up with while they train them, and when you can hire four or two to one adult, you can ease workloads on individual employees. Second, we’d get these teenagers off the streets, where they’re likely joining gangs or doing drugs, or off their couches, where they’re not doing anything. Third, we would help inculcate a whole new set of values into our youth: responsibility, thriftiness, professionalism, things we’d like to promote, a new sense of civics. Fourth, we’d save ourselves the trouble down the road of having an entire generation that can’t even flip burgers, much less create corporate plans that contribute to economic growth. Fifth, I think such a plan can actually make it by Washington—slap “Think of the Children!” on the front and you have an unemployment torpedo.

There are no doubt some criticisms of this plan. There will likely be some knee-jerk horror of child labor, born from reading too many high school history textbooks. Never fear; kids these days will not be working in mines or sweatshops (unless McDonald’s counts as one.) They might say, by paying kids a lower rate, we’d be “delegitimizing” their work. That’s an odd complaint; if a policy promotes work, how can it be delegitimizing it? Moreover, kids don’t need the full minimum wage: they’re not paying for a mortgage or car loans, or dealing with utility bills or paying for groceries. They have parents taking care of their needs. When I was kid, receiving an allowance, I blew it on video games and books. (Okay, I was a nerd, I admit it.) I didn’t need to put food on the table or buy a house. Teenagers can get by with a lot less.

In short, we can act now and save not only our kids, but our country’s future, or continue twiddling our thumbs while our future burns. It’s our choice, and our kids are the stakes.

 
 


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