Young and Jobless

Dec. 15, 2009

It is not a good time to be a teenager looking for a job. While the unemployment rate in the United States was at 10 percent for November 2009, some 26.7 percent of teenagers were unemployed in that same time period, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The month prior saw the rate at 27.6 percent, the highest rate of teenage unemployment since the BLS began tracking such data in 1948.

Further, in an article in the New York Times, Andrew M. Sum, an economics professor at Northeastern University, noted that half of college graduates under age 25 are in jobs that do not require college degrees, the highest portion in at least 18 years.

Now unemployed teens are not going to gain as much sympathy as say a single mom looking to feed her children. But, in the long-term, there are serious consequences to teenage unemployment. High school and college students need jobs, particularly during the holiday season and summer vacation, to save money for college, a car, a first apartment and generally transition into adulthood. And students who have to drop out of college or delay the start of their career will fall further down the earnings ladder. It will likely be years before the full impact of the current rate of unemployment is realized.

The value of having a job as a teen is not just about making money. It’s also about slowly building a work history; learning to be responsible; and, of course, discovering that not only does money not grow on trees, but before you get your cut of your earnings that pesky FICA and the Feds will take their share.

One solution to teenage unemployment proposed by the Center for American Progress Action Fund among others is national service through programs such as the AmeriCorps VISTA program. Founded as Volunteers in Service to America in 1965 and incorporated into the AmeriCorps network of programs in 1993, the program was designed specifically to fight poverty.

At a panel discussion today at the Center for American Progress Action Fund’s office in Washington, D.C., John Bridgeland, president and CEO of Civic Enterprises, suggested it is time to “think boldly.” He said the United States needs to revive national service in the spirit of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In an emergency session of Congress in March 1933, FDR called for the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Some 300,000 young men were put to work planting trees, building bridges, and cleaning beaches.

Now I am undecided as to whether volunteer service is the best way for those involved to enter the workforce, but the benefits for communities served is undeniable. Since 1994 some 500,000 AmeriCorps members have put in 637 million hours of service. Those in the program have done everything from expand technology access and recruit literacy volunteers to participate in disaster relief and connect poor families to health clinics and services.

In a Nov. 16 article on Center for American Progress’ Web site, National Service and Youth Unemployment, Melissa Boteach, Joy Moses and Shirley Sagawa argue that entering national service not only assists struggling nonprofits at a time of massive budget shortfalls, but it provides young workers with career opportunities they otherwise would not have.

“Young people who initially cannot find a job often suffer consequences that follow them long after a recession ends. The reason: Time spent not developing work experience makes young workers less competitive for future job opportunities. Indeed, lifetime earnings are diminished with each missed year of work equating to 2 percent to 3 percent less earnings each year thereafter. A study of college students who graduated during the 1982 recession found that they were still earning less 8-10 years later than students who had graduated into a strong economy.” – National Service and Youth Unemployment

Similarly, Bridgeland noted that studies suggest unemployment impacts not only those who are out of work, but brings down the morale of the entire neighborhood. FDR’s CCC has been credited not only with public service projects we still benefit from today, but a Chicago judge at the time credited the program for a 55 percent reduction in crime.

Melissa Boteach, Joy Moses and Shirley Sagawa’s article calls for Congress and the Obama administration to invest $625 million in  supplemental FY2010 funds to create 42,000 jobs in AmeriCorps, VISTA, Youth Corps, and Youth Build over the next 24 months.

Clearly putting people to work in a useful and meaningful way is an admirable goal. But the near poverty wages paid to those who serve is no way to enter the work force. We should not be paying more to incarcerate a prisoner (according to a report released in March by the Pew Center on the States, One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections, the the average daily cost to incarcerate an inmate is $78.95) than we are paying youth to work on projects that revive and strengthen our communities.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper