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Our View: Don’t forget teens in minimum-wage debate

The debate over whether Illinois needs to increase its fourth highest in the nation minimum wage rate is often framed in terms of the needs of employers to control costs and the needs of workers to survive.

But one group is often left out of the debate, in part because most of them are not old enough to vote: Illinois’ teens.

Teens’ minimum wage has been pulled higher along with that of adults in the past decade – and fewer young people have jobs than ever.

According to a 2012 report by the Center for Labor Market Statistics at Northeastern Illinois University, employment among the state’s teen population has declined from 49.7 percent in 1999-2000 to 27.5 percent in 2011.

During that same time period, the minimum wage in Illinois has increased 60 percent, from $5.15 an hour in 2000 to $8.25 today.

There is some discount for employers who hire teens – the minimum wage  for workers younger than 18 is 50 cents less than for adults. Anyone younger than 18 is guaranteed to earn $7.75 an hour.

President Barack Obama has called for raising the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour. Gov. Pat Quinn has called for the state to increase its minimum wage to $10 an hour over four years.  

What will the teen employment numbers look like if the minimum wage for those younger than 18 is increased to $9.50 an hour? Probably even thinner.

Many business groups say that minimum wage hikes disproportionately effect small businesses, which are most vulnerable to increases in their labor costs. A local small business is a prime candidate for hiring local youth.

If a minimum wage hike is enacted for adults, perhaps our leaders would be wise to leave the minimum wage for those younger than 18 where it is. Anyone under 18 earning below a certain amount should also be exempt from income tax withholding, as they rarely earn enough to owe anything.

These kind of common-sense accommodations can make it easier for people who are young and inexperienced to find a niche in the marketplace.

The opportunities for young people to earn pocket money, learn about how things function in the workplace, and even gain exposure to a career path that they might one day choose to follow grow more limited the more employers are required to pay them.

There must be a floor for what a person’s labor is worth. But those who are pushing to continue to make labor more expensive should be careful not to price tomorrow’s workers out of today’s labor market.

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