By Robert Cherry
To lift black and Latino disadvantaged youth, President Obama has promoted raising the minimum wage and expanding pre-K. While these policies should be vigorously pursued, they do little for many of those who are already in the public school system. Currently, only about half of all black and Latino disadvantaged youth who enter the ninth grade graduate from high school. This reflects their weak academic skills when entering high school. As measured by the National Center for Education Statistics, about 46 percent of black and Latino eighth graders do not meet basic skill levels in reading compared with only 19 percent of Asian and white students. By contrast, 40 percent of Asian and white eighth graders perform above basic skill levels compared with only 14 percent of black and Latino students.
For these disadvantaged students, the most effective strategy would be to promote teen employment. As Katherine Newman’s study of Harlem fast-food workers demonstrated, employment is important because it provides students with the soft skills that are needed for their long-term success: teamwork, interpersonal communication, and other key behavioral traits. It offers opportunities for networking and mentoring from a new set of social relationships. Michael Gritton, executive director of the Workforce Investment Board, which promotes job creation and teen employment in Louisville, Ky., and six surrounding counties, said, “There are economic returns to those young people because they get a chance to work. Almost every person you ask remembers their first job because they started to learn things from the world of work that they can’t learn in the classroom.”
Just as important, employment supplies spending money so that these adolescents do not have to engage in risky behavior to finance the consumption goods they expect and need. For young men, it reduces the temptation and opportunity to engage in illegal activities. For many disadvantaged teen women, risky sexual behavior results from their overreliance upon older working men for spending money. Given the disproportionately high black poverty rate, black teen women are especially vulnerable to these coercive relationships. This might explain why national gonorrhea and chlamydia rates, respectively, are ten times and seven times higher for black than white female teenagers.
Risky sexual behavior also results in high pregnancy and abortion rates. Nationally each year 12 percent of black teen women become pregnant—a rate 3.5 times higher than the white rate. The black teen birth rate is only double the white rate as the black abortion rate is substantially higher than the white rate. Studies have shown that female teen employment can reduce coercive sexual relationships.
Unfortunately, the teen employment rate in 2013 was little more than half what it was fifteen years ago. Nationally, only one in ten black teenagers from low-income households is employed. Between 2007 and 2012, as employers shifted to older workers, the ratio of the teen employment rate to the rate for 20- to 24-year-olds fell from one-half to two-fifths. While I strongly endorse a minimum wage increase, there is some evidence that it may adversely affect teens by accelerating this shifting of employment to young adults.
President Obama could enlist national retail corporations to hire disadvantaged teens for year-round part-time employment after they have successfully completed a government short-term work readiness program. Once hired, the government would provide counselors to help students balance work and school. Students could remain in the program for up to two years. By providing soft skills, mentoring, and spending money, this program could move disadvantage youth forward by providing a pathway to the middle class.
Robert Cherry is a professor of economics at the Graduate Center and Brooklyn College, City University of New York.