Teen Unemployment Causes and Solutions
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Joining us to talk more about teens out of a job this summer are Clifford W. Graves, general manager for the City of Los Angeles' Community Development Department, and William Rodgers, professor of public policy and chief economist at the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. Rodgers blames the economy, but, adds, the problem goes deeper.
Professor WILLIAM RODGERS (Rutgers University): Just think of a job ladder where your rungs are based on your skill. Well, young teens, particularly African-American teens, are at the lowest rungs. They have the least amount of skills, amount of experience. And then there's a whole set of structural long-term issues ranging from not having access to the jobs, as they're growing up in the suburbs, and many of them live in urban areas and don't have easy access, to employer perception and where young African-Americans are also viewed as being the least motivated. So--and then there are some new issues centering around being involved or having some perception of being involved with the criminal justice system. Those have scarring effects. And then now many young men having child support arrears, which also kind of create a treadmill.
CHIDEYA: Let me turn to you, Mr. Graves. How big of an issue is teen employment for the city of Los Angeles? You have a very diverse population, a young population. Is this a critical issue for you?
Mr. CLIFFORD W. GRAVES (General Manager, City of Los Angeles' Community Development Department): In our view, it's a very critical issue. This age group, the 16 to 19, is basically your future work force, and if these young people are not in school, are not in the labor force, they're basically disconnected. This hurts the economic development of our cities. Because it reduces the number of skilled workers available. It also is going to put pressure on the institutions of our society because these kids are very vulnerable to gang activity, to incarceration, to homeless or other--in need of other sorts of assistance. So if we don't catch these kids early, society is going to have a big bill to pay.
CHIDEYA: So what sorts of things do you to in your job to try to work around the issue of teen unemployment?
Mr. GRAVES: We start, actually, before the age of 16. We have a program in Los Angeles called Bridges, which works in the middle schools that are--where the kids are most at risk to provide extra tutoring, after-school activities, recreation and family counseling. We also have contractors who work specifically with young people to provide them with the opportunity to get job skills, job readiness skills, anything we can do to keep them connected. Is it enough? No. But we're working on it.
CHIDEYA: Professor Rodgers, let me take what Mr. Graves was saying and take it to the federal level. You have various governmental programs--state, local and federal--that are trying to deal with this. Have they been cut back in recent years? What's the state of that?
Prof. RODGERS: Sure. Before I answer that question, I just want to piggyback on something Mr. Graves said, I mean--and just echo the importance of the staying in school message. Just to give you an example, out-of-school youth, between 16 and 24 years of age, if they had dropped out of high school this past year, of them, 12 percent of them would have been employed. Back in 2000, the peak of the boom, almost 30 percent of them, if they were looking for jobs, would have been able to get employed. So at the federal level, you know, we need to get our fiscal choices, I think, back in order with regards to, you know, viewing that we need to educate and train our work force, particularly these young individuals. We also have to make better choices about making work pay. We've been fighting and fighting to raise the minimum wage at the federal level. Now we're seeing many states having to resort to doing that.
CHIDEYA: Well, let me just jump in there for a second.
Prof. RODGERS: Sure.
CHIDEYA: I have talked with business people who say that the minimum wage, as low as it seems to many people, is too high to support business growth. How do you deal with the idea that if you raise the minimum wage, people may turn to individuals who want to work outside of the wage structure?
Prof. RODGERS: Well, that comes back to what your values are, as a culture, and that leads me into stepping up enforcement, and making sure that we're enforcing the various labor laws. That piece connected with the literature that's been studying the effects of raising the minimum wage--modest increases don't create the wide-scale job loss that, you know, many businesses, individuals will claim, or it doesn't reduce the competitiveness. And, actually, in many cases, because these are occupations that have high turnover, many of these companies have vacancies and so raising the minimum wage can act to induce younger people to come and look for those jobs.
CHIDEYA: Well, Mr. Graves, let me direct what we were talking about, the issue of the minimum wage and whether or not that can be an incentive to get more teens into the workplace, to the issue of city vs. suburbs. Most of the job growth is occurring in suburbs and many times you'll see a business, like a fast-food chain, that pays significantly more in the suburbs surrounding a city, than in the city itself. How do you, as a city official, deal with the idea that kids in your city might have to go to the suburbs to get higher-paying employment?
Mr. GRAVES: That's a very good question. And I don't think anyone has fully solved that. One way that is being explored in Los Angeles is looking at the way the public transit is routed. The typical public transit system is centered on bringing people to downtown. And it is focused on the lower-income families and households. In Los Angeles, we are actually trying to re-route many bus systems so that they feed employment centers and commercial areas in the suburbs, as well as downtown. And we are seeing effects on ridership in that way. But Professor Rodgers is right, the bulk of African-American young peoples are in areas where there is very little job growth.
Another thing that can be done is to establish what in Los Angeles we call a living wage, which affects many jobs in the city that requires that employers pay a certain wage regardless of what the official minimum wage is.
CHIDEYA: Well, Professor Rodgers, we're just about out of time, but I'm just going to leave you with one final question. Mr. Graves just said better the transportation, that could help the job situation. What one concrete action would you recommend?
Prof. RODGERS: Well, it would be one concrete with sections A, B, C, D. Unfortunately, there's no silver bullet, that I think we have to, again, become much more patient in making our strong investments for the future with regards to improving access to jobs for young people that are--maybe they're going out in the suburbs, investing in education and training, working with young non-custodial parents, with regards to getting their arrearages down, and also improving the job networks that they have, and if we take that systematic holistic approach, I think we can be successful in the future.
Mr. GRAVES: And I would agree.
CHIDEYA: All right, well, got a consensus there. William Rodgers is professor of public policy and chief economist of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, and Clifford W. Graves is general manager for the City of Los Angeles' Community Development Department.
Thank you both for joining us.
Prof. RODGERS: Thank you.
Mr. GRAVES: My pleasure.
CHIDEYA: This is NPR News.