Salvarys Rafael Caban, 17, grew up fast, working several jobs while a student at Brighton High School so he could help his mother, a cafeteria cashier, pay the bills.
Education quickly became an afterthought for the teen, who went to school late or not at all as he sought more hours and bigger paychecks to contribute to his family’s support. He began failing classes, and graduation seemed less and less likely.
“As long as I was getting paid, I didn’t care,” said Caban.
The economic downturn of recent years has fallen particularly hard on low-income households, forcing teens to trade school for work and put their futures at risk. Yet more families are confronting this problem because incomes — especially among the working poor — have stagnated since the recession officially ended in 2009.
A new report, “How Youth Are Put At Risk By Parents’ Low Wage Jobs,” by researchers at the University of Massachusetts and Boston College, says that adolescents, who often take on adult responsibilities to help keep families afloat, ultimately bear the brunt of these decisions. As they neglect their education, falling further behind in class and often dropping out, they increase the risk that they, too, will become trapped in low-paying jobs.
“Low-wage work is the new poverty,” said Randy Albelda, an economist at the University of Massachusetts Boston and one of the report’s authors. “It’s not good for those kids, their school districts, and the economy as a whole if we’re keeping kids back because of the quality of their parents’ job.”
Research on the dynamics in poor, working families is relatively new and has rarely focused on adolescents, who face “disproportionate challenges” in such households, according to the report. Young people from such homes have a much stronger likelihood they will drop out of school, become obese, or have children as teenagers.
The authors found that 3.6 million of the nation’s 20 million adolescents, or nearly 1 in 6, live in a low-wage home. In Massachusetts, that’s any family in which a parent earns no more than $13.35 an hour or, if employed full-time, about $26,700 a year.
These young people are the sons and daughters of cashiers, nurses’ aides, janitors, and others with low-paying occupations. Since the recession, they have fallen further behind, with their incomes growing at less than half the rate of inflation.
As education and skills become increasingly important in the modern economy, these trends threaten to accelerate, sustaining the cycle of poverty while widening the gap between rich and poor. The unemployment rate among high school dropouts was more than 12 percent in October, compared with less than 4 percent among workers with at least a bachelor’s degree.
High school dropouts will earn less than half the lifetime income of those with bachelor’s degrees, according to US Census studies.
Meanwhile, the numbers of working poor are on the rise, said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. Workers earning less than $11 an hour — the equivalent of about $23,000 a year for those working full time — rose to 28 percent of the nation’s workforce last year, up from 23 percent in 2006, he said.
“The impact on educational achievement is going to be one of the biggest scars left from the recession,” Mishel said. “From everything we know, high persistent unemployment will do more damage to the educational prospects of low-income students than all the positive outcomes from educational reforms that people talk about.”
Bobby Bryant of Mattapan is an example. A lanky high school junior, he cares for his 3-year-old twin sisters most evenings, putting them to bed so his mother can go to her job as an event coordinator. On weekends, he said, he cares for his own daughter, who is 5.
He enrolled at ABCD University High School, an alternative school in the Boston public school system that helps students who, because of family obligations or other reasons, need flexible school schedules so they do not drop out. He gave up basketball, began looking for a job, and continues to help his mother.
“Me taking care of my sisters is more important than me playing basketball,” he said.
Bryant’s mother, Yolanda Williams, said she has always relied on her son for help. When he was growing up, she worked three jobs, including a day job at a dental office, evenings in retail, and weekends at Burger King while relatives cared for Bryant and his brother.
Williams, 37, a single mother, said she would like to receive training to get a better-paying job or work that offers health care benefits, but she is too busy putting in hours and caring for her 3-year-old twins at home. “Bobby,” she said, “he’s like the father of the house.”
The UMass report said such “adultification” of teenagers is common in households where young people assume responsibilities at an early age. The report notes it can be beneficial, as long as those responsibilities do not overwhelm schoolwork.
But Melissa Sanjeh, the university high school principal, said she often has to tell students they cannot miss class in order to work. She will offer to call their employers to explain why they cannot work, but students frequently beg her not to, fearing their hours will be cut.
The report called for improved wages and benefits as well as more workplace flexibility — including sick leave — for parents in low-wage jobs to help take pressure off teens. More money and support for after-school and mentoring programs would help “ensure that young people get adult attention that supports their academic progress and health and also protects them from growing up too fast.”
Caban eventually left Brighton High to enroll at ABCD University High School. That enables him to work at Burger King, where he hopes to become a manager earning $10 an hour and graduate from high school in February.
He said he plans to enroll in college in the summer or fall, though he’s not sure where. He said he knows it will be an important step and the only way he can find a good job that will allow him to one day support a family of his own.
“I feel like I took responsibility at a young age,” he said. “But if I wasn’t going to do it, who would?”Megan Woolhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org