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Community Voices: Fighting back for good jobs and good wages

Anne L. Thompson

Our nation’s teens face grim chances of finding a job this summer. May’s monthly jobs numbers revealed that a staggering 24.2 percent of teens 16-19 are unemployed, down only slightly from the historic peak of 27 percent last fall. This dire jobs situation follows a rough decade for our nation’s youth: Since the 2001 recession, annual teen unemployment has never fallen below 15 percent.   

The crisis in teen employment is another terrible incarnation of the overall jobs’ deficit our nation faces. With unemployed workers outnumbering job openings by more than four to one, employers have their pick of older, more experienced workers even for entry-level jobs. Half of the jobs secured by new college graduates don’t require a college degree.

That leaves teens, the youngest workers with the shortest resumes, with the bleakest prospects for employment. And among youth, African American teens face even greater hurdles in finding work, given disparities in education, family income and the disconnect between where they live and where job opportunities exist.

Persistent earnings disparities between African Americans and whites at all educational levels also suggest that employer discrimination remains a factor in limiting employment and earnings opportunities for black teens. Unemployment among African American teens in May was a stunning 40.7 percent.

To add insult to injury, corporate interests are now seizing on the crisis of African American unemployment to advance their own interests and further erode worker protections. From The Wall Street Journal to The Heritage Foundation, corporate interests are claiming that black teens have been sidelined from the work force by — wait for it — the minimum wage.

 These folks have seized upon a new study by the Employment Policies Institute that claims that raising the minimum wage in 2007 caused more unemployment among 16-to-24 year-old African Americans without high school diplomas than the recession. Let that sink in. They claim that the minimum wage, which is now worth less than in the late 1960s, has caused more job loss among the nation’s most vulnerable workers than the worst recession since the Great Depression, one that decimated the housing and financial sectors and ricocheted throughout the entire economy.

The claim doesn’t pass the straight face test — and it doesn’t pass the test of basic economics either. While corporate interests advance their own studies on the effects of the minimum wage, a growing body of rigorous academic research has found that increases in the minimum wage increase earnings for minimum wage workers without reducing employment. A study published in April in the peer-reviewed journal “Industrial Relations” by economists at the University of California and University of Massachusetts examined the effects of the minimum wage increases on teens from 1990-2009 and found no evidence of resultant job loss, including among African American youth.

How did the Employment Policies Institute get it so wrong? As reported by The New York Times, the group is a “business-backed” organization headed by former restaurant industry lobbyist Richard Berman — you may have heard of Berman for his efforts opposing restrictions on drunk driving or mercury in fish or arguing that tanning beds don’t cause cancer.

Make no mistake about it — the organization’s mission is not to improve the economic situation of vulnerable, low-wage workers, but to help corporate interests increase profits.

In an era in which labor unions represent a tiny share of the private sector and high unemployment erodes workers’ ability to negotiate better pay, the minimum wage serves as one the few remaining worker protections to keep wages from free falling.

For African American workers, who experience even higher unemployment rates and continuing workplace discrimination, wage erosion is even more severe and the protection afforded by the minimum wage is even more important.

We must stand up to corporate interests that, in the cause of enhancing their profits, are using the economic crisis as a bludgeon to further reduce the security of ordinary Americans to enhance their profits.

Anne L. Thompson is a policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project.