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Itâ€™s July, which means that across the country teenagers are flipping burgers, scooping ice cream and mowing lawns to save up money for school clothes, movie tickets and â€” oh, right â€” college tuition. But fewer young Americans are working summer jobs than in decades past, and fewer of those jobs are going to the teens who need them most.
The improving job market is gradually beginning to benefit teens, who are often among the first to lose jobs during a recession and the last to find them in a recovery. During the 2008-2009 recession, the share of Americans ages 16 to 19 working during the summer plummeted from 40 percent to less than 30 percent, a steeper drop than for the population at large. But last year, the teen employment rate rose to 32 percent, and with the unemployment rate now below 5 percent, most experts expect even more teens to find jobs this year.
That rebound, however, has barely made a dent in the decades-long decline in teen employment. In the summer of 1995, more than half of teens age 16 to 19 worked in the summer; today, less than a third do. The drop has been especially steep for boys, who are now less likely than girls to work during the summer. Experts attribute the decline to a variety of forces: the disappearance of many entry-level jobs, the rising share of young people spending their summers in school or other educational activities and, at least recently, a rising minimum wage. (Employers may not see teen workers â€” especially those with less experience or fewer skills â€” as worth $10 or more per hour.)
Young Americans from low-income families have been especially hard-hit by the decline in summer employment. According to data from the Current Population Survey, teenagers whose families make less than $20,000 per year are now less than half as likely to work as those from families who earn at least $100,000, and, unlike their wealthier peers, low-income teens have seen hardly any rebound in employment since the recession ended. (Black and Hispanic teens, too, have far lower employment rates than whites.)
Teens from less privileged backgrounds face numerous barriers to finding jobs. They are less likely to own a car (or have access to one), and often live in areas where jobs are scarce. Their parents are less likely to be able to help them get a foot in the door at a local business. They may attend schools that are, or are perceived as, inferior, making them less attractive to prospective employers. And they may face discrimination based on race, class or other factors. None of those barriers is new, of course, but they may have grown higher as the U.S. has become more unequal and more segregated by class.
Unfortunately, low-income teens are also the ones who most need summer jobs. They need the money, of course â€” a job that might provide pocket-money to a middle-class teen could be a key source of income for someone from a poorer family. But they also need the experience. Young people from low-income backgrounds canâ€™t count on family connections, expensive extracurricular activities or, in most cases, degrees from private colleges to help them land jobs as adults. So they are particularly dependent on work experience to get ahead. Past research has found that at-risk teens who work perform better academically, are less likely to get into trouble with the law and earn more as adults than those who donâ€™t.
Earlier this year, President Obama unveiled a new effort to boost summer employment among teens, especially those from low-income families. Many cities also have their own programs. But the surest way to ensure that teens can find jobs is to improve the overall economy: Because teens are often unattractive to employers (who see them, correctly or otherwise, as inexperienced, unskilled and unreliable) they can have a hard time finding jobs until the unemployment rate gets low enough that companies have no other options. Thatâ€™s what happened in the late 1990s, when the unemployment rate dropped to 4 percent and teen employment rose as companies scrambled to find enough workers. The economy has shown significant improvement in recent years, but those gains havenâ€™t yet trickled down to some of the hardest-to-reach corners of the job market.