Teen Workers are Valuable

Teen Workers are Valuable

Why are we ignoring them?

In the next couple of weeks, most adult Americans will get a $1,200 check from the government. Families with children will receive an additional $500 for each kid. This is good. We live in a country where our safety net is as thin as tissue paper. One missed paycheck can send many families into financial peril. The loss of a job usually means the loss of health insurance, a particularly stark reality in the midst of a pandemic. Let’s face it, this small cash infusion won’t be enough to save most families, but it’s better than nothing. The system is bad. We should fix it. For everyone. Forever. For now, a bandaid is better than an open wound.

However, there is a stunning loophole in this bill. Teens between the ages of 17-19 are mostly exempt. Many college students won’t qualify for any relief. If you have older teenagers living in your home or if you declare your college kid as a dependent, you’ll get no help on their behalf. That $500 per child does not apply to anyone over the age of 16. This is preposterous. Have you seen a 17-year-old eat? How can we hand parents $500 for younger kids and ignore the real needs and expenses of these older dependents, many of whom are still in high school? Many of whom actually contribute to the household by earning an income? There’s no logic here.

photo of hands holding a dollar bill
Many young adults won’t see a dollar from the stimulus package.

And if you’re an older teen working to put yourself through school or pay your rent, you may not qualify either. Basically, if you don’t make enough money to file an annual tax return, you’re out of luck. These young workers often make the bare minimum, but their work is important. These workers serve your food, tear your movie tickets, teach your kids at summer camp, and ring up your purchases at the mall. Most are not doing it for fun. They work because they need the money.

I don’t know why this bothers me so much. I don’t have any kids and I’m a long way from my teen years, but I haven’t forgotten what it was like to work at that age. It was hard. I worked a number of jobs as a teen. I worked behind the concession stand at a movie theater and at a local swimming pool. I worked at a store in the mall. I worked at a grocery store. I worked for a temp agency, where I was sent to offices to answer phones, file, and type memos whenever someone called in sick. And, yeah, I was often working for pocket money, but it’s not like my work didn’t matter. And it’s not like the money I earned didn’t matter. I used that money to put gas in the car, to buy books, to buy clothes, to eat out. My money poured back into the economy. I paid taxes. The same is true of working teens today.

These jobs—often low-paying and with terrible hours—were some of the first to go during this crisis. Now, instead of going out and earning money, these older teens will be home. Some will be in their parents’ home and other will be in their apartments, many with too many roommates all trying to cobble together rent on next to nothing. No matter what, they’ll be eating and using resources like water and electricity and digital bandwidth. But their parents won’t get a $500 check to help offset expenses. And they won’t get any compensation for lost wages. Basically, the message to these young people is that they don’t matter all that much.

Americans love to denigrate young people. One generation insists that the next generation is lazy or entitled or too idealistic or too cynical. We should stop doing this. It’s never true and it just makes us sound old and out of touch. The truth is, young people today are every bit as smart and driven and talented as young people have always been. They are compassionate. They are curious. They are valuable members of society and they contribute a lot.

I will not be surprised when, ten years from now, Americans are complaining about how 20-somethings have no respect for their elders. But let’s try to remember that when faced with a crisis that affected everyone, we decided to count them out. Why should they just forget how we treated them when they were struggling to start their adult lives? Why should they forgive us for ignoring them? We’ll be damned lucky if, when faced with a similar crisis in 30 or 40 years, they don’t just let our generation die off.

They’d certainly be justified.

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