Raising the Minimum Wage Would be a Mistake—Especially for the Next Generation

One of the policy priorities fielded by Maryland’s progressive-dominated legislature is a plan to raise the statewide minimum wage to $15/hour in the next few years. It is a radical plan that would strip all exemptions out of law and require this standard of every employer from Hagerstown to Waldorf and from Havre de Grace to Ocean City.

The proposed law has already been criticized from several angles—there are the arguments made by professional economists that higher minimum wages effectively outlaw low-margin profitability, the moral case that this law would criminalize mutually beneficial behavior between consenting Marylanders, and the observation that this scheme comes directly from the Baltimore Mayor’s office out of concern that a higher minimum wage in the city would cause people and businesses to leave Baltimore, but that a statewide law would get the job done. Apparently, the idea that most Marylanders could want to leave the state is just unthinkable.

But I’d like to talk about one angle in particular: this experiment would eliminate any exemption for teenagers. This seems to betray the entire professed rationale for the minimum wage. We often hear activists compare their next minimum wage explained as a “livable wage,” alongside figures about monthly rent and food. They ask us how anyone can be expected to live on less than that.

That argument is of dubious worth even applied to adults (who are, after all, already supplied with assistance via housing projects and food stamps funded by our tax dollars). But it is patently absurd when applied to teenagers. No one expects a high schooler to be paying rent for their one-bedroom apartment and buying a supplement of groceries from their income.

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Lawmakers might defend the inclusion of teenagers in their new wage regime as a measure of “fairness.” But I cannot think of anyone more unfairly treated by this mandate than teenagers. Teenagers’ special advantage in the workforce is their ability to work cheaply in order to learn skills, earn references, and develop a work ethic. Who would expect an employer to hire a teenager with no workplace references and no experience for their first job when, by state mandate, they would pay as much for someone with a proven track record?

And the injustice is deeper than economic. I remember when I was a high school freshman and applied to work at the Severna Park Community Library. When summer came, and a round of departing graduates opened up spots, they interviewed and hired me for my first job, working for a proudly-earned $7.25/hour.

But what I got out of that job was not the money. I got to do something. I got to do something that mattered so much that people would pay me for it. You just don’t experience that in school; even if you’re a nerd who enjoys geometry or reading Mark Twain (and believe me, I was), productive activity is its own reward, and the taste of that reward is withheld from the next generation for too long. Like I read years later in Senator Ben Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult (a book I’d checked out from that library), “fulfillment comes from production, not consumption.” We are failing the next generation if we shut them out of that sort of meaningful work.

And the benefits of that first job didn’t stop there; the weekend I set foot on college I applied to work at their library. They had had all of three seniors graduate recently, so they had their choice of the most experienced applicants to elevate to positions of (modest) responsibility. As someone with years of experience, I was chosen, and worked there until the month I graduated. Without that first foothold in Severna Park, I would not have been able to climb the next step on the ladder of responsibility.

Erecting barriers for teenagers this way seems like a great way to set the next generation up to be caught off guard when, down the line, employers (rightly) expect experience and references before gambling on them even in entry positions. Meaningful work is a good thing, and the sooner in life we are allowed to learn that, the more rewarding life can become. Criminalizing that because of some abstract idea called “the livable wage” would be deeply unfair. Let them own their own labor. Let them work.

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