Protecting teenagers from work is one of the worst things you can do to kids. Some child-labor groups are campaigning to impose new restrictions on freedom of contract. While some prohibitionists might have good intentions, pervasive restrictions on youth labor would be a menace both to kids and to society.
The Associated Press reported that 73 teens were killed on the job in 2000. This is far fewer than were killed and wounded in the narcotics business. Most drug dealers do not abide by the federal regulations for youth labor. Insofar as the government drives kids out of legitimate jobs, they could end up in tasks that are far more dangerous.
Some activists urge new restrictions on teens working in the food-service industry. But the accident rate of teens working in fast-food restaurants is probably lower than the health-injury rate of devoted customers of fast food.
A recent Associated Press article, entitled “Teens working summer jobs may be exposing themselves to danger that parents don’t see,” lamented, “Federal and state laws on child workplace safety can be confusing. And what teenager even thinks about reading them?”
The article quoted a 16-year-old supermarket cashier, who said he “was trained how to handle spills, falls, and broken items.” The Associated Press reporter asked the teen what he knew about federal labor laws and he replied, “We have signs posted all over the place, but I don’t think anyone reads them.”
The article did not include any speculations about the role of government schools in producing semi-illiterates who cannot understand the official federal notices about work rules.
What is the alternative to private employment? Federal programs, which wreak their own carnage.
The government fails to keep statistics on the number of teens whose work ethics are fatally damaged in federal summer-job programs. The General Accounting Office noted as early as 1969 that some kids hired in the government summer programs “regressed in their conception of what should reasonably be required in return for wages paid.” Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.) complained in 1979 that “young people get such a strong message of cynicism and corruption that it cannot fail to carry over into their attitudes about work, crime, and society.”
Washington, D.C., has one of the largest summer-job programs. I visited some of the Washington sites in 1989. At the Marion Barry Youth Leadership Institute (named after the city’s role-model mayor), young people “worked” by having a rowdy talk over whether “women are not interested in sex” and whether “men want women to be submissive.”
The director explained to me that the teenagers were learning “conversational skills.” Many participants were shouting, throwing paper clips, and punching each other, and few were paying attention to the group leaders. In the afternoon, the youth were paid to work at basketball — a frequent occupational “skill” underwritten by big-city summer-job programs.
The summer programs often reveal a genius for divorcing jobs from work. The New York Times reported in 1992 that Bridgeport, Connecticut, youth workers were assigned to the SWEAT Team; but, instead of signifying arduous work, the acronym referred to Students Who Entertain Artistic Thoughts. In the first week of their “jobs,” the “workers” went to a local dance, took a trip to Spike Lee’s Block Party in New York, and had a “brotherhood picnic.”
Robert Woodson of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise observes, “The programs instill a false sense of work in kids and make it more difficult for them when they go out and try to get a real job.” Elijah Anderson, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist, wrote, “In many black communities, the [summer youth program] has … a reputation for being ‘a sham’ and a ‘waste of time.’”
Federal job programs continue to be largely a “feel-good” experience — the opposite of many of the tasks open to entry-level workers.
Sabotaging youth labor
The federal government has a long history of throwing wrenches into the youth-employment market. While newspaper headlines proclaim “Child Labor Violations Widespread,” little attention is paid to the actual violations. In the Washington, D.C., area, one pizza shop operator was found guilty because he allowed 17-year-olds to deliver pizza, which the Labor Department considers a “hazardous job” for young people.
The Labor Department launched a highly publicized investigation of the Food Lion grocery chain in 1992 for child-labor violations; Food Lion representatives claimed that Labor Department officials had told them that “90 percent of the violations relating to hazardous conditions involved workers under the age of 18 — putting cardboard into nonoperating balers.”
On April 20, 1992, the Washington Post reported,
“Inspectors sometimes find dozens of violations in a single community. A crackdown in the Ocean City-Rehobeth Beach area in August  turned up 182 minors illegally employed in more than 30 businesses, including gas stations, hotels, and T-shirt and novelty shops.”
But what is the danger in allowing teenagers to sell T-shirts in an ocean resort area during the summertime? Would the feds prefer the kids were lying out on the beach getting skin cancer?
Child-labor laws received a black eye in 1993 when a Labor Department enforcer warned the Savannah Cardinals baseball team that it must fire Tommy McCoy, a 14-year-old bat boy, because he could not work after 7 p.m. while school is in session or after 9 p.m. during the summer.
The team’s fans were outraged and announced plans for a “Save Tommy’s Job” night. After the Labor Department was sufficiently embarrassed, Labor Secretary Robert Reich announced that the policy was “silly” and decreed that bat boys would be exempt from the federal restrictions. Reich announced, “It is not the intent of the law to deny young teenagers employment opportunities, so long as their health and well-being are not impaired.” Reich did not explain how federal enforcement of restrictions on all other industries and occupations did not “deny teenagers employment opportunities.”
When I was 16, I spent the summer toiling for the Virginia State Highway Department. My favorite task was working with a chainsaw — an experience that proved invaluable for my future work as a journalist. It was much more inspirational than baling hay or fighting snakes in trees while picking peaches, as I did the prior two summers — largely because federal restrictions banned me from getting other work.
The following summer, when I was 17 and working construction, I learned an important lesson when the foreman announced, “Red, you aren’t walking fast enough for $4 an hour.”
My months with the highway department also provided valuable insights into the nature of government work.
I can still recall two of the foremen jawing angrily about why the state government was having them build a road — instead of simply hiring a private company — “because the private companies do a better job, and cheaper, too,” one of them said.
The job also provided a chance to work along with a prison convict gang. Some of the convicts were busted on drug charges, and would talk at length about their dubious experiences in the criminal justice system. One guy from Richmond admitted that he was dealing — but insisted that he had never met the person whose testimony at trial sent him to prison.
Competition and labor unions
Many of the advocates of new restrictions on teen work are labor unions who profit either from having kids confined to classrooms or blocked from competing with their members.
The Child Labor Coalition, one of the highest-profile advocates of restrictions on teen labor, includes the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the Teamsters Union, the Service Employees International Union, and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
Ironically, federal restrictions on freedom of contract have only increased economic exploitation. People almost never petition Congress to restrict their own freedom of contract; rather, one group petitions politicians to restrict someone else’s freedom for its own benefit. Just as no man is entitled to a share of his neighbor’s income, no man is entitled to have his neighbor’s freedom restricted in order to boost his own income.
Jobs can boost teen safety simply by keeping kids “off the street.”
On July 16, the National Center for Victims of Crime and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency released a report that found that “teenagers are twice as likely as any other people to be shot, stabbed, sexually assaulted, beaten, or otherwise attacked.”
George Tita, assistant professor of criminology at the University of California, Irvine, commented that teens’ crime vulnerability,
“has more to do with who you hang out with than where you live. We know that if you sell drugs, are involved in drugs, are involved in gangs, your chances of being a victim of crime, especially violent crime, is much, much greater than for those who aren’t.”
The fact that some teens have job accidents should not be invoked to lock all teens into a risk-free cocoon. Teens have more accidents in almost everything they do — from auto wrecks to broken condoms.
Teenage years are a time of trial and error and the government cannot protect kids from all danger without also “protecting” them from personal growth. Destroying jobs is not the same as saving lives.