Imagine if there were an issue on the ballot that only affected you, but you were barred from voting on it. Like, for a ridiculous example, if there was a vote in your American history class to ban students from taking snaps of the 19th-century presidents in your textbook and putting a smiling poop emoji over their faces — and then your James Polk–worshipping teacher waited until you, the sole presidential snapper, were out of the room to pass it.
Now imagine that the vote was about something far more important, and you’ll have an idea of what Briggs Tople felt like when he learned that the South Dakota legislature was trying to lower the state’s minimum wage — but just for people under 18 years old. The minimum wage is on the ballot in five states this year, but this referendum is the only one that takes a step backward.
Some context: Back in 2014, South Dakota voters approved a ballot measure that raised the minimum hourly wage from $7.25 to $8.50. Just one year later, the legislature passed a measure that pushed the minimum wage for minors back down to $7.50. Petitioners fought back, and the issue will be on the ballot again in November — but since the law only affects people under 18, who are below the legal voting age, its targets won’t get a say in whether it passes.
When the measure that raised the minimum wage passed two years ago, Tople was a happy Republican, volunteering with campaigns around his hometown of Aberdeen. He was also only 14. When he heard that legislators in the state capital were planning to roll back that advance in 2015, and only for people his age, he got angry, and started calling local Republicans. As far as he could see, the state representatives didn’t have a good answer for why the minimum wage should be lowered for teens.
Supporters of the lower minimum wage say they’re worried that an $8.50 law could prevent local businesses from hiring people under 18, and argue that a so-called “training wage” protects jobs for new workers. But Sylvia Allegretto, a research economist at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at University of California, Berkeley, just released a study that found raising the minimum wage had no effect on teenage job employment. “I don’t think there’s a really good reason to say you should take an entire group of workers and keep their wages below the lowest wage in the state,” Allegretto tells MTV News. The federal government also already has a time-limited youth minimum wage of $4.25, which can be used for the first 90 days of employment for workers under the age of 20 (though Allegretto says it’s unclear how many businesses or states actually use it).
Not all academics agree with Allegretto — as with every debate involving the minimum wage, there are plenty of people on both sides of the argument who say they have data that backs up their case. It is true that fewer teenagers are working these days than in past decades, but this is part of a broader, long-term trend. Researchers aren’t quite sure why it’s happening; it might be because more teenagers are now full-time students without time for a job, or that more young people are choosing to focus on internships or extracurricular activities instead of working. Even so, Allegretto notes, “Most minimum wage workers aren’t teens, but many teenagers are minimum wage workers.”
Yannet Lathrop at the National Employment Law Project believes that teenagers deserve the same minimum wage as all other workers. “They are buying their own clothes, or buying their own books for school, maybe buying their lunches,” she tells MTV News. “It’s not just to go get a sundae after the movie.”
Tople, now 16 and a registered Democrat, is currently joining with other students his age at Aberdeen Central High School to lobby local parents on the minimum wage ballot measure, since they can’t vote themselves. The same dynamic is in play in the debate over lowering the voting age to 16 — another battle that directly affects teens while denying them any official say. Two towns in Maryland let teenagers vote in local elections in 2014, but many other efforts have crashed and burned. One of the main arguments against lowering the voting age is the same one that was used during early efforts to lower the voting age to 18 before the ratification of the 26th Amendment in 1971. Decades earlier, in 1945, the New York Times wrote about a poll that showed 68 percent of school superintendents were “doubtful of wisdom of 18-year-olds.”
“A school official in Illinois was quoted as saying,” the paper reported, “that ‘it is unnecessary to saddle youths with this responsibility: they have enough to do as it is.’ Another superintendent commented that ‘the very reasons that make an 18-year-old a good soldier mentally keep him from being a conservative, sensible voter.’ Most of the educators stressed ‘immaturity and lack of expertise.’”
“There are a lot of stereotypes about teenagers in our culture,” Anne Sheridan at the National Youth Rights Association tells MTV News. “Not being engaged, being glued to their phones, just caring about very superficial things.”
Jessica Eng, a 17-year-old senior at Lowell High School in San Francisco, says she often hears similar arguments about students not being informed enough to vote when she is out canvassing for Proposition F, a ballot measure this November that would let teens vote in the city’s local and municipal elections. Some conversations make her hopeful, though. “I went into a house with a mother, and asked her, ‘Do you support this?’ and she called her children over and asked them. I thought that was so interesting,” Eng says, “that she was asking her children what they would do.”
Tople makes a similar argument when he’s out door-knocking for local Democratic candidates, sometimes bringing up the minimum wage measure. “When adults vote, they shouldn’t just care about things that directly affect them,” he says. “They should also care about what affects their kids.”