Some Teens Are Only Earning $4.25 an Hour

Hanna Brooks Olsen explains why we should ditch the Federal Youth Minimum Wage.

Lane Kim would like her full wages, please.

If you haven’t yet started reading Pay Me What You Owe Me, consider it a good addition to your Medium follow list. (Also, you’re following The Billfold on Medium, right? Just checking.)

Last week, Hanna Brooks Olsen wrote an amazing longread about the Federal Youth Minimum Wage, which allows employers to pay people under 20 years old $4.25 per hour for the first 90 days of employment. Not coincidentally, summer jobs are often just about 90 days long.

I don’t know if any Billfolders have had the privilege of earning the Federal Youth Minimum Wage, but imagine spending your summer working for $4.25 an hour before taxes. (That comes out to $170 per week if you work a full 40 hours—or about $136 or so after taxes, depending on the state. For a full-time job.)

Now imagine you’re earning this wage while trying to supplement your family’s income or pay for your own educational expenses:

There Is No Good Argument For The Teen Wage

In the year 2016, it cost a student $92 to take an AP test. $92 to take the test. $92 just for the chance to get some college credit (which makes $92 a cost savings in the long-run), assuming they’d studied hard and practiced their DBQs and crammed calculus equations and generally been quite studious throughout the year.


Or, about 22 hours of labor, if the teen in question were being paid the sub-minimum wage — $4.25 — that some policy experts believe is most fair and equitable.

College—and college prep—aren’t cheap. If teens take on part-time jobs to pay for these kinds of expenses, they deserve to earn the full minimum wage.

Olsen’s argument is well worth reading, and she addresses (and refutes) multiple counterarguments: that requiring businesses to pay teens the full minimum wage would result in higher teen unemployment, that teens have “fewer skills” than adults (she reminds us that none of us walk into Starbucks on our first day knowing how to operate a portafilter), and that teens primarily spend their money on “discretionary” items:

Though researchers often cite “eating out” and “clothes” as unnecessary expenses for teens, the fact that they spend their money on things parents are typically expected to buy can be hugely beneficial in families where budgets are tight.

The most surprising fact in Olsen’s piece? The teen wage was implemented in 1996 and has not changed since then. Teens today earn the same amount of money as they did twenty years ago, even though many teen-related expenses—gas, college, even “unnecessary” items like food and clothing—have gone up significantly.

How much did you earn at your teenage jobs? What personal/educational expenses were you expected to cover with your earnings, and were you able to earn enough at your job to pay for them?

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