Relaxing rules about teens working gives them more freedom

Getting rid of hurdles to work for teens doesn't mean taking advantage of them. Instead, it gives them more power.

My daughter, who is 16 years old, just got her first part-time job at a coffee shop. She comes home from work with a big smile on her face. Working with her coworkers and helping people from all over the world gives her a lot of energy.

When I told her about a recent Associated Press story about teens working, which said that there are "other ways to expand the workforce without putting more of a burden on kids," she was confused. Her job is not a burden. It's a pleasure.

The Associated Press looked into what some states are doing to make it easier for more young people to get work if they want to. Most of these changes are meant to loosen up the rules that limit where and how 14- and 15-year-olds can work. In Massachusetts, these rules make it illegal for teens under the age of 16 to work in places like bowling alleys and barber shops.

Critics of attempts to make it easier for teens to get jobs, like a bill New Jersey lawmakers passed last year that lets 16- and 17-year-olds work up to 50 hours a week in the summer, say that giving teens more opportunities to work can be hard on them and even be exploitative. They instead support other policies, like making it easier for people to come to the U.S., that could help with labor gaps without hurting teens.

This is a case of both/and. We should make it easier for kids to get jobs by removing barriers that make it hard for them to find work. Both are good practices that make people's lives better.

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Still, there are a lot of news stories about how children are supposedly being used in the workplace. Last month, a story about how McDonald's restaurants hire people made people worried about two 10-year-olds who were at a Kentucky McDonald's after midnight. They turned out to be the children of the night manager, who they were visiting.   

Other McDonald's owners and some Dunkin Donuts shop owners have recently been fined for hiring 16- and 17-year-olds for more than nine hours a day or asking them to work past 10:00 pm, among other things. The real question in these situations is who should be in charge of what the teen does. Why should the government stop a 17-year-old from working at McDonald's until 10:30 p.m. if her parents agree?

Proponents of youth employment laws say that the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which was passed in 1938, put an end to child labor in the US, and that if the government hadn't stepped in, young kids would still be working in factories and other places. In the developed world, this kind of child labor stopped when the economy got better because of free markets, not because of government rules.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, most children who worked in places like mills did so because they were poor. As the country got richer and the average income per person went up, parents were able to take care of their families without depending on their children's jobs.

Robert Whaples, an economist at Wake Forest University, says, "Most economic historians agree that this [FLSA] law was not the main reason why child labor went down and almost went away between 1880 and 1940." Instead, they say that development and economic growth led to higher wages, which gave parents the freedom to keep their kids out of work.

This is still happening in poor countries today. No matter what the government does, child work goes down as the average income per person goes up.

Thanks to the great economic health of our country, most kids don't have to work. The things that state lawmakers did today to make it easier for teens to get jobs are smart ways to make it easier for teens who want to work. No one, teen or adult, should ever be forced to work. We have rules against forced labor that have been around for a long time. The current plans to give more teens access to jobs are based on the idea that people should be able to trade freely in a free labor market.

In Wisconsin, for example, lawmakers proposed a bill that would allow younger teens to serve alcohol in restaurants. This is currently illegal, which can make it hard for these teens to get work in restaurants. A similar law was just passed in Iowa, which also lets 14- and 15-year-olds work up to six hours a day instead of just four during the school year. Ohio lawmakers want to let 14- and 15-year-olds work until 9 p.m. instead of 7 p.m., all year long, as long as their parents and schools agree. And earlier this year, Arkansas lawmakers passed a bill that says 14- and 15-year-olds no longer need work permits.

Getting rid of hurdles to work for teens doesn't mean taking advantage of them. Instead, it gives them more power. When I was in high school, my first job was as a cashier in a drugstore. Outside of home and school, it was exciting to meet so many new people and learn about different points of view. Getting a job as a teen is a big step in life and a good way for young people to gain skills and confidence on their way to becoming adults. It can also level the economic playing field by letting teens with less money buy the goods and tools that teens from wealthier homes often get as gifts.

We should try to get more teens to work and make it easier for them to do so, so that more young people can enjoy the financial independence and emotional satisfaction that work gives.

This is especially true now, when figures on employment show that the number of teens who are working is at a record low. In 1979, nearly 58% of 16- to 19-year-olds had jobs. This number has been around 35 percent since 2010. During the school year, teens are less likely to work because school and events like school take up most of their time. However, teens are also less likely to work during the summer.

People worry a lot about how much kids use social media, but it could be that many teens don't have many other ways to spend their time. Teens can't work and are getting kicked out of public places like malls, so it's not surprising that more of them hide behind computers and social media.

By making it easier for teens to get jobs, they could have healthier, more real interactions with the people in their communities and learn important skills that will help them no matter what road they choose in life.

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