Nolan White and his friends wanted to earn some money this summer. Their first idea didn't pan out so they got creative and came up with a plan to sell bottled water near the museums and monuments in Washington D.C. They didn't know they needed a permit. By the end of the day, the three teenagers had been handcuffed by undercover officers. Instead of joining the labor force, White and his two friends became part of the national debate about disparities in policing (the teenagers are black).
While the story of what happened after the water-selling plan went awry has gone viral, less attention has been paid to the events leading up to the ill-fated entrepreneurial venture. According to the Washington Post, White & Co.'s first plan was to get a job at Six Flags in Maryland. They were turned down. "Too much competition."
The summer job used to be a rite of passage for teenagers. Nowadays, each summer yields a crop of news stories and analysis about the declining number of working teens and the possible causes. The most popular and logical explanation is that fewer teenagers want to work in the summer. More teenagers are seeking educational or internship opportunities than ever before.
But what about those teenagers who don't have those opportunities? What about teens like White and his friends who do want to work? They wanted a job so much so that they came up with an enterprising plan B after the Six Flags option didn't pan out. They didn't shrug and dash home to play video games. They came up with a business plan and implemented it.
Why are there fewer summer jobs for high school kids?
Here again, there is widespread agreement: many summer jobs that once went to teenagers are now going to older workers and immigrants - not a surprise given the record level of immigration and the record level of older Americans remaining in the workforce. And why wouldn't employers prefer an older worker with years of experience - or an immigrant depending on employment to get started in a new country - to a teenager with hormones and distractions to spare?
There are even more cards stacked in the deck against teens than the punditry acknowledges. In the alphabet soup of guest worker programs facilitated by the U.S. government is the J Visa which includes something called the "Summer Work Travel Program." Every year, the SWT pairs 100,000 foreign students to U.S. employers for summer jobs - for a fee. Most of the foreign students aren't much older than American teenagers but the U.S. government gives U.S. employers several reasons to prefer them over Nolan White.
When hiring through the Summer Work Travel Program, employers:
- pay no Social Security tax;
- pay no Medicare tax;
- pay no health insurance (foreign students are responsible for their own)
- are not bound by prevailing wage requirements.
Summer industries like amusement parks are big users of the SWT. Wonder why Six Flags might prefer foreign workers over Nolan and his friends? The Government is making them an offer they can't refuse.
For more on the Summer Work Travel Program see: "Cheap Labor as Cultural Exchange" by Jerry Kammer of the Center for Immigration Studies; and "Guestworker diplomacy" by Daniel Costa of the Economic Policy Institute.
The J Visa program is good for a lot of people. The State Department collects fees from the foreign students, as do the organizations designated by the State Department as sponsoring agencies. The whole thing is a $100 million industry. In return, the promoters work to place the foreign students in U.S. jobs. Most of the students enjoy their time in the U.S. and return home with a dose of international goodwill (although there are notable exceptions, including some who complained about working conditions and treatment at Six Flags).
American teenagers who want these jobs but are turned away due to "too much competition" receive scant media attention, at least until they end up handcuffed on the National Mall. Statistically, Nolan White and his friends are within one of several high-unemployment groups unfairly written off in comment sections across the internet as being lazy. Should American businesses work harder to recruit from these groups? By offering financial incentives to hire foreign rather than domestic, the U.S. government's answer is "no."
But that is a story the legacy media has yet to show interest in.
JEREMY BECK is the Director of the Media Standards Project for NumbersUSA
Updated: Fri, Jul 14th 2017 @ 8:54am EDT