Flip Side of the Dream
By BOB HERBERT
Emmanuel Wayne pressed his back against the shabby, one-story building, trying unsuccessfully to escape the downpour. The blue-and-white sign overhead said Bill’s Liquors.
I was standing there with him. The water pouring down the teenager’s face created a funhouse mirror effect, making it look like he was laughing and crying at the same time. It was an absurd place to conduct an interview, but a lot of things about the inner-city are absurd.
“I been looking for a job,” he said, “but you know ... .” He shrugged. “I went to the McDonald’s. I was up to the Cherry Hill Mall. Ain’t too much out here.”
It was a gloomy late afternoon. Throughout the rundown neighborhood, young people were gathered in clusters on porches, looking out at the rain. I talked to some and they told the same story as Emmanuel. No jobs. No money.
“That’s why people go on the hustle,” said one young man. “Got to get the money somewhere.”
The summer job outlook for teenagers is beyond bleak. A modest 157,000 jobs were added to the nation’s payrolls in May. But teen employment fell for the fifth consecutive month, an ominous trend as we head into the summer months when millions of additional teenagers join in the hunt for jobs.
From January through May, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, “the national teen employment rate averaged only 33.1 percent, tying for the lowest employment rate in the past 60 years.”
For youngsters like Emmanuel Wayne and others in this distressed city just a stone’s throw from Philadelphia, the problem is much worse. Last summer, the employment rate for black teens from low-income families was an abysmal 18 percent.
This is the flip side of the American dream. Kids who grow up poor and never work at a regular job tend not to think in terms of postgraduate degrees, marriages and honeymoons, careers and the cost of educating the next generation.
A steady job could make all the difference. Along with the paycheck comes a sense of the possibilities. Kids develop a clearer understanding of the value of education and are more likely to stay in school. The heightened sense of self-worth that comes from gainful employment can be a bulwark against negative peer pressure. Contacts are made and a work history established.
“The more you work today, the more you’re going to work tomorrow,” said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies. “And the more you work while you’re in school, the easier it is to transition to the labor market when you graduate.”
It seems obvious that we should be putting as many young people to work as possible, but the opposite is happening. The youth labor market in the U.S. has all but collapsed. Teens were especially hard hit by the recession that followed the employment boom of the late 1990s, and there has been no substantial recovery in the teen job market since then.
Years ago the federal government played a major role in bolstering job opportunities for teenagers. There was substantial bipartisan support for both year-round and summer employment programs. But that important commitment vanished with the conservative onslaught of recent years.
The result was inevitable. As the center has reported, “Far fewer youth across the nation are gaining exposure to the job market and to the real world of work than in the late 1980s and 1990s.”
What you are left with are frustrated youngsters, full of energy but lacking appropriate outlets, who have trouble figuring out what to do with themselves. It’s an environment that is all but guaranteed to spawn bad choices.
I asked Emmanuel what he might do if he couldn’t find a job for the summer.
“Don’t know,” he said. “I got a buddy doing this and that. He could help me out.”
The rain had eased up and Emmanuel was off. A man named Darnell, who said he was 23, came out of the liquor store. He and I talked for awhile about the summer prospects for teens in the neighborhood.
“Well, there ain’t no jobs in Camden,” he said. “Not for teenagers. If you can’t get a job, you have to hustle. People be pushing weed. Cutting hair. Lifting stuff. The girls do their thing. It ain’t no picnic out here. It’s depressing.”