Tyeshawn Clark, is a 17-year-old high school student who lives with his mom and 2-year-old brother in Dorchester, MA. Every day after school Tyeshawn works at the Transformative Culture Project, a job placement he found through the Boston Private Industry Council, an employment program at his high school. This is the third job for Tyeshawn, who started working the summer after his freshman year of high school to gain experience. When Tyeshawn first started working he gave half his earnings to his mom to help around the house. Now his mom has a better-paying job and Tyeshawn gets to keep his earnings for things like back-to-school clothes and snacks. With school nearly out and summer quickly approaching, millions of teens will be entering the job market. Should these teens be paid the same wage as adult workers?
The debate about whether teens (16-19 year-olds) should be paid the same as adults has been going on for decades, but it has taken on new importance as more cities and states look to raise their own minimum wage above the federal level. Activists who support raising the minimum wage have, in some ways, undermined the importance of keeping teen wages on par with adult wages. Consider the messaging in Rhode Island: progressive activists argued for a higher minimum wage by focusing on the fact that minimum wage earners are older women trying to provide for their families. Advocates argued that the minimum wage supports adults and their families, not teens in the suburbs, reinforcing the idea that for teens, a high minimum wage is neither critical nor important – rather the most important part of a job for teens is the professional training. This messaging overlooks a number of arguments for why teens should receive the same minimum wage as adults. When states and cities raise the wage, they should do so without a teen wage carve out, and activists should not view a teen wage as a bargaining chip in the debate to raise the minimum wage. Trading away teen wages could hurt all workers in the long run.