When the Teenager Is the Breadwinner

The Fight for 15 movement could free the children of low-income workers from the need to work after school to keep their families afloat.The Fight for 15 movement could free the children of low-income workers from the need to work after school to keep their families afloat. (Photo: peoplesworld)

…An intersection of race, class and gender

By Yana Kunichoff
In These Times

Jan 5, 2015 – Like many immigrant families, that of Iris Sebastian (a pseudonym) has long played a precarious financial balancing game.

Her parents, Luis and Josefa, both crossed the border from Mexico in the mid-1990s. They met in the U.S. and settled down in Houston, where they had Iris, the oldest of four girls, soon after. Thus began the balancing game. As Luis and Josefa worked low-wage jobs in service or day labor to support themselves and their children, the family was in constant discussion about how to save a little here, a little there. Maybe that meant secondhand clothes or going without new school supplies. Or it could mean a few extra nights of work for Luis or Josefa at their second jobs as cooks.

Working two jobs and trading child care responsibilities sustained them through the boom of the 1990s and even the initial dip of the 2008 recession. From 2005 to 2013, both had steady cook jobs at a Burger King in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston.

That all changed in the fall of 2013. Luis had long suffered from diabetes, and fluid retention in his legs made it increasingly difficult to work on his feet all day, as his service jobs demanded. Eventually he had to severely cut down his working hours. The balancing act became more precarious.

As the oldest daughter, Iris, an 18-year-old high school junior, felt it was her responsibility to keep the family afloat.

“I was telling [my parents] I needed to get a job,” she says . “I always see my mother and she is stressed, I see my dad and his legs are swollen.” She’d tell him, “I know we need money, but I need you to calm down and relax.”

Against the wishes of her family, she, too, took a job. Four or five days a week, Iris works at Smoothie King, a local chain, for the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

It’s not uncommon for young people to work. Of the 16.7 million young people aged 16–19 in the United States in November 2014, 28.6 percent were employed and another 20 percent were looking for work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Similarly, a quarter of Latino youth like Iris are employed.

But what distinguishes Iris is the reason she entered the workforce—economic need. The children of poor families already start off further behind for a slew of reasons, including food insecurity, growing up in a neighborhood without adequate resources, and simply the stress of being poor.  (Continued)

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