As high schools around the country are breaking for summer, millions of students are searching for the coveted summer job. Whether it’s an exercise to save money for college, fill your pockets with some spending cash, or—perhaps most importantly—pad an early resume with employment experience, summer jobs are a rite of passage for teenagers.
But bad news for young job seekers is stewing. Some politicians in Washington are attempting to pass a policy that would severely compromise teenage employment opportunities.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) recently unveiled a plan that would more than double the federal minimum wage to $17 an hour. The move would broadly shrink the pool of available jobs—either forcing businesses to consolidate positions, scale down operations, or encourage automation. And in this environment, younger American workers would be the first to get the boot.
When faced with the decision to fill an open position that is required by law to pay a higher minimum wage, employers are more likely to choose a more skilled job candidate, rather than take a chance on a high school student with little experience.
The extra hurdle to locking down employment as a teenager would set off a domino effect—having implications well beyond not being able to find near term work as a lifeguard, restaurant worker, or retail associate. Teenage jobs are the first rung on the career ladder, and without that experience, it can be much more challenging to ascend to higher paying positions in the future.
Because some states are already implementing higher wage floors, a natural experiment has unfolded that reveals the connection. According to a recent analysis from the Employment Policies Institute (EPI), there is a clear correlation between state minimum wage levels and the teenage unemployment rate. As government mandated wage floors rise, so does the rate of teenage joblessness.
When comparing minimum wage levels between the 10 states with the worst teen unemployment rates to those with the best, the former group has a significantly higher average minimum wage level. More specifically, states with the top ten highest teenage jobless rates have an average minimum wage of $12.78 per hour, while states with a healthier teenage job market have an average government-mandated wage floor that’s roughly 38 percent lower.
Washington, D.C. provides the most jarring example. With the highest minimum wage in the country, the city’s young workers grapple with an unemployment rate of nearly 35 percent. Meanwhile, California has a rolling 12-month average teen unemployment rate of 11.6 percent—a reading that’s above the national average.
Experts confirm what the statistics suggest.
A 2022 survey found that three-quarters of labor economists agree a $15 minimum wage would have a negative effect on teen employment. With Sen. Sanders’ $17 proposal, the negative impact predicted by economists would likely be even more dramatic.
Other academic research points in the same direction.
A working paper from the George Mason University’s Mercatus Center suggests minimum wage hikes are the “predominant factor” in youth unemployment. Another study by economists William Even of Miami University and David Macpherson of Trinity University finds teenagers will experience the brunt of job losses (42 percent) associated with a federal minimum wage hike.
Summer jobs provide young Americans with the opportunity to gain valuable work experience that will act as a building block for a future career. Given that state employment statistics and economists agree that higher minimum wages will have an outsized negative impact on youth employment opportunities, Sen. Sanders should rethink his proposal.
After all, to get a good job, everyone needs a first job.
Elaine Parker is the President of the Job Creators Network Foundation.