Last week, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a bill making it a bit easier for teenagers to enjoy gainful employment. Predictably, the usual suspects piled on, accusing state lawmakers of sacrificing children to Mammon. But in the midst of a national labor crunch, Arkansas is hardly alone in contemplating loosened restraints on teenage workers. The move might not only fill jobs, it could also improve young Americans' prospects for future prosperity.
"In Arkansas the days of trapping our people in poverty, welfare and government dependency are over," tweeted Sanders after signing the Youth Hiring Act, which in few words eliminates a requirement that 14- and 15-year-olds get permits from the state government in order to work.
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The Sky is Falling… on Toiling Teens
Citing the dangers of illegal child labor involving migrant children, critics immediately attacked the idea of eased legal employment.
"The new Arkansas law is just one of a number of state bills loosening child labor restrictions, despite evidence that young children are already engaged in dangerous and exploitative labor throughout the country," charged Vox's Ellen Ioanes.
"Arkansas Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a bill into law this week that rolls back a number of child labor protections across the state," insisted CNN's Sydney Kashiwagi.
"Gotta admit – loosening child labor laws was not on my Top 10 List for our CA legislative session this year," huffed California Gov. Gavin Newsom as he linked to a news report of the reform.
"Our laws are now in line with AZ, CO, and TX," Huckabee Sanders shot back to Newsom. "You might recognize them as states like mine that Californians are fleeing to."
Young Workers Take the Jobs That Adults Don't Want
Not only is Arkansas meeting the standard set by other states with its new work rules, it's also, as Vox's Ioanes conceded, in good company in seeking to reduce barriers to teen employment. That's a pressing concern in a tight labor market with adult labor force participation remaining stubbornly lower than it was before pandemic-era restrictions. The worker crunch has pushed employers to hire younger workers (my then-16-year-old son fielded multiple offers when he went job hunting in Arizona) and states to loosen restriction on teenage employment.
"Adding to a growing trend across the country, a Connecticut lawmaker has proposed two bills that would lower the working age in certain industries to help address the state's labor shortage," Hartford Business Journal noted last month.
Axios reports similar proposals in Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Ohio, as well as Connecticut and the enacted reform in Arkansas. "The laws and proposals have largely been introduced by Republicans but received support from some Democrats in Ohio and New Jersey."
Eased barriers to employment could further expand opportunities for teenagers who have been in demand as many of their elders stepped out of the workforce in recent years. That's a reversal from decades in which the labor force participation of younger Americans declined from 59.3 percent in 1978 to a pre-pandemic low of 32.5 percent in February 2014 (last month it was 37.5 percent).
Work Now, Prosper Forever
Importantly, more opportunities mean not just more workers, but potentially greater prosperity for teens who gain early job experience.
"When economist Raj Chetty studied dozens of local factors that correlated with upward mobility, teenage labor force participation proved more powerful than almost any other factor, even high school drop-out rates or violent crime rates," Timothy P. Carney pointed out last week in a Washington Examiner column.
Chetty, a Harvard University economist, is better known for emphasizing the value of social capital—in particular, friendships across class lines—for boosting economic mobility. But his research indicates a strong correlation between teenage participation in the labor force and upward mobility. It's a connection that's been made multiple times in the past.
"A shift in teens' time allocation from market work to leisure or other activities that do not increase their human capital may negatively affect their future productivity," economists Daniel Aaronson, Kyung-Hong Park, and Daniel Sullivan cautioned in a 2006 Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago paper about declining teenage employment. "In general, labor market experience tends to raise subsequent earnings."
Improved future prospects from teenage employment aren't just an American phenomenon; it's an expected outcome form work around the world even when jobs are less than ideal.
"For every young person, a job offering decent work is an important step in completing the transition to adulthood, a milestone towards independence and self-reliance," the United Nations' Commission for Social Development observed in a 2007 discussion paper about workers 15 to 24. "For children and young people living in poverty and in other disadvantaged situations, employment is often the main means for attaining a better life, though such employment is often informal with poor or exploitative working conditions. For more fortunate youth, prospective employment influences their choice of education and training, and increasingly, their decisions regarding marriage, kinship and cohabitation."
"The [International Labour Organization] estimates that if the prevailing youth unemployment rate is reduced to the level of adult unemployment global GDP would increase by between 4.4 and 7.0 per cent," added the commission. "Such a reduction in youth unemployment is achievable and would certainly contribute to poverty alleviation and thus to social development."
Critics Would Sacrifice Big Benefits from Employment
That's a lot of benefit to be had from letting teenagers earn income and develop good work habits for later in life when the stakes are higher. And it's a lot to sacrifice to satisfy critics who have their panties in a bunch over very minor reform. The bill that Sanders signed does nothing more than reduce state interference in the youth hiring process and leave work decisions to teens, employers, and parents. If businesses offer jobs, and parents and guardians sign off on the idea, willing 14- and 15-year-olds can now legally work within the tight parameters allowed by the U.S. Department of Labor. That's the extent of the change.
Loosening the rules even further would be a great idea, further enhancing opportunity and prosperity. But prepare for a lot of hyperventilating by people who pretend that the best way to combat illegal child labor in the shadows is to prevent teens from being hired openly and legally.
Pending bolder reform, Arkansas has joined other states in letting some more teens work without bureaucratic approval, so long as their parents say it's OK. It's a step in the right direction.