I got my first fast food job when I was 15. My hours were limited by child labor laws and it didn’t last long because we moved to a new state two months after I started work, but I got a quick lesson in what it meant to work in the food industry.
While my employers supplied me with a uniform, I had to buy special shoes that would keep me from slipping and sliding all over the grease-covered floors, a purchase my family could barely afford. I came home after every shift with sore feet, smelly clothes, and my skin covered in grease mixed with adolescent sweat. I experienced steam burns, bruised buttocks from slipping and falling, and short snack breaks that never felt like they were long enough.
And within six months after moving, I jumped right back into the fast food workforce, prepared to experience all of that and more for another three years.
I’m not complaining. Working in the food industry in high school and college taught me a lot of skills. I learned how to deal with difficult coworkers and customers, I practiced a considerable amount of patience, and my employers were usually pretty flexible with my school and activity schedules, occasionally giving me a month or more off at a time so that I could keep doing extracurriculars or go on family vacations. My coworkers and I worked hard to cover for each other and were often willing to switch shifts when something came up. When I didn’t have conflicts, I found it pretty easy to pick up extra shifts, especially when I was the first to pick up the phone.
For me, working in high school wasn’t a luxury; it was a necessity. My parents couldn’t afford to give me money to go out and do things with my peers or buy many of the things my friends had in their bedrooms. If I wanted a new stereo system or CDs, I had to save every penny to buy them for myself. Even with a job, I could barely scrape together enough money for post-play performance outings to Big Boy or pre-practice runs to the gas station.
And I was doing all of this while earning less than $6.00 an hour on minimum wage during the ’90s.
One of the many points I hear from people opposed to raising the federal minimum wage is that teenagers don’t need make $15 an hour. Why do teenagers need that much money? What are they going to do with that money? Why are we discussing rewarding children without a high school diploma with a “living wage”?
But as someone who has been teaching teenagers for nearly two decades and who has two pre-teen children who are quickly approaching the age when they will be able to join the workforce, I’m having more and more difficulty accepting that teenagers don’t need a higher minimum wage.
I had to work. My parents didn’t give me a choice. And two of my three sisters followed me to the same fast-food restaurant as they moved into high school. All four of us understood that if we wanted anything, we had to work for it because our parents couldn’t afford to just give it to us. And as we got closer to college, we were saving money for books and college expenses, which was pretty much all that our minimum wage jobs could provide for us. Paying for tuition on less than $5.50 an hour was an impossibility.
While my husband and I are in a significantly better financial situation than my parents were when I was a child, we both need our kids to work in high school as we plan for cars, cell phones, and eventually college. We also firmly believe in the importance of work in teaching our children financial responsibility and independence.
The reality is the current minimum wage just isn’t enough for teenagers to reach those goals.
We know our kids are the “lucky” ones; we want them to work in the future because we want them to be financially independent, but our family is not dependent on those wages. That isn’t the case for the 41 percent of American adolescents living in low-income households, 19 percent of whom live in poverty. For those children, the ability to legally earn a living wage to help support their needs and the needs of their family is a matter of survival.
Give teenagers more spending power and they will use it. At our current federal minimum wage, a teenager has to work two hours just to be able to afford a movie ticket. They have to work an entire day to buy a decent pair of shoes. They have to work at least 70 hours to pay for a semester of college textbooks (and that’s a fairly cheap semester). And we haven’t even started to discuss the number of hours they would need to work to purchase a car, pay for insurance, and fill said car up with fuel.
Ask most teenagers why they are working and they will tell you that the jobs aren’t about frivolous luxuries. Those jobs are a necessity or a pathway to dream fulfillment. They work minimum wage jobs because they lack the education, skills, and experience to make more money. These are jobs that are often physically and emotionally exhausting as they endure the abuse of customers and yes, even bosses or coworkers. I know from the experience of teaching teenagers for nearly 20 years that if you show kids respect and demonstrate confidence in them, rewarding them for a job well done, they will rise above expectations. A living wage tells them that they are valuable and essential to the workforce. It tells them that they have an important role to play in society. Show teenagers they have value and they will usually work hard to prove that they have earned it.
Look, I’m willing to have a conversation about whether or not we need a graduated minimum wage based on regional cost of living and education level, but we need to take the age of the workers out of the equation.
All American citizens deserve a living wage, and that includes our youngest and least experienced citizens. Show them they are worthy and they will rise to the occasion.
And yes, that includes the kid leaning on the counter who can’t count out your change.