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JOANNA WEISS

Age-based wages short teen workers

It’s hard to talk to Jada McNeio and not wish she earned more money. The senior at Urban Science Academy in West Roxbury, who hopes to study criminal justice in college, had to drop off the basketball team this year to help her mother pay the bills.

So now, after school, she heads straight to her job at the same Dunkin’ Donuts in the South End where her mother works. She works 30 hours a week, relying on understanding teachers and school staff to accept the toll on her schoolwork.

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She’s a teenager. She earns the minimum wage. Does she belong in a separate category of workers?

A minimum wage bill is making its way through Beacon Hill, and there seems to be a growing consensus on raising Massachusetts’ minimum wage from $8 to $10.50 over three years. (There’s also a separate ballot question afoot, supported by local unions, which would raise the minimum wage to $10.50 over two years.)

But there is less consensus, here and nationwide, over what to do about teens. And it turns out that teens make up a substantial portion of minimum-wage earners. Nationally, just over half of minimum wage earners are 24 or younger, according to a Heritage Foundation study. Of those, 79 percent work part time, 62 percent are also students, and their average family income is $65,900 per year.

These demographics have been used as an argument against raising the minimum wage, at least for teenagers: They aren’t all heads of household, and do we really need to subsidize summertime ice cream scoopers? In all, 26 states offer some modified minimum wage for teens: Exempting students from the minimum wage altogether, offering teens 85 percent of the minimum wage, allowing substantially lower wages for short-term work. And some business groups argue that lower teen wages would increase the odds that teens get summer jobs — the kind that Mayor Marty Walsh is pushing for in Boston, or that teens rallied for at the State House last month.

There are two separate issues here. The first is the calculation that a lower-paying job is better than no job at all. That is surely true, but it’s unclear how many summer jobs would die outright if the minimum wage went up. Josh Bruno, who directs the school-to-work program at the Boston Private Industry Council, places nearly 3,000 Boston public high school students with private employers, large and small. So far, he said, no businesses have balked at a wage increase. And there are ways to offset rising wages, he said, such as hiring teens for 30 hours a week instead of 35.

How do you separate the kids who need it from the ones who don’t — the worthy expenditures from the frivolous ones?

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Then there’s the question of how kids use their money. For some, it might well be for sneakers and snacks. But a recent Northeastern University study tracked more than 400 high schoolers from violent Boston neighborhoods, who received summer jobs through a coalition of foundations, businesses, and government agencies. When asked how they spent their paychecks, 68 percent said they bought clothes, shoes, or personal items. But 60 percent said they also gave part of their income to their parents. Nearly half put money in savings accounts, and 40 percent bought school supplies. Even money that didn’t go to rent or food left more money in the household for rent and food.

And that’s the problem with a separate minimum wage for teens: How do you separate the kids who need it from the ones who don’t — the worthy expenditures from the frivolous ones? At a time when college costs soar above $40,000 per year, it’s safe to assume that middle class kids could stand to save more money, too.

And then there are teens like McNeio, or Keturah Brewster, 18, a senior at Boston Latin School, whose mother died when she was 12. She lived with family members for awhile, but now rents a room in Brighton, which she pays for in part through a $9-an-hour job at the Youth Jobs Coalition. (She helped to organize that State House rally.)

“People assume that teens just use their money to buy sneakers or to play around with,” she acknowledged. “But regardless, the money goes right back into the economy. And a lot of teens help their families.”

Who’s to say, based on age, that their work is less valuable than anybody else’s?

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.
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