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ThreeSixty: Breaking Out


Editor’s note: Economists say that the accident of birth — whether your parents are college grads with a Lexus in the drive or high-school drop-outs with a pile of unpaid bills — shapes life in big ways. This month, ThreeSixty looks at some of the things that challenge teens in families that struggle and how they overcome them.

When Shelly Hunter left home three years ago because of ongoing fights with her parents, she knew she’d have to work to support herself. At 16, she was a good student at a Minneapolis high school, and she planned to go to college.

But it was hard to earn enough for food, rent and a car. Shelly, who asked that her real name be kept private, had to leave school an hour early to pick up her boyfriend at his job. From 5 to 10 p.m., she worked at a McDonald’s in Minneapolis. After that, she cleaned offices until 3 a.m. After a few hours of sleep, she’d get up, take her boyfriend to work and get to school by 9:30 a.m.

“Work meant survival,” Shelly said in an e-mail interview. “I moved out from my parent’s house when I was 16. I had to survive somehow.”

Soon, her grades began to drop. A mandatory attendance policy meant that she didn’t get credit for a class if she missed eight days or more.

“Working so much did cause me to not get a lot of sleep, and so I would wake up late or just not go to school, and that counted towards my eight days. I dropped out because I was tired or trying to go to school. Tired of trying to get my work done. So I just started working.”

Now 19, Shelly and her boyfriend have a baby. She has a full-time job paying $12 an hour, not bad but not what she hoped for.

“Now that I am in my situation, I wish I didn’t drop out of school because I could have done better for myself. But I guess I didn’t do so bad. I have great experiences in everything. My job isn’t too bad.”

According to University of Minnesota sociologist Jeylan Mortimer, Shelly’s story is typical of teens who consistently work more than 20 hours a week while they are in high school. For adults, working lots of hours can be a way out of poverty. For teens, working too much can keep them stuck in the struggle because they make the job their main focus, not school.

But working a steady, moderate amount can help them do better in school, Mortimer has found.

By studying hundreds of St. Paul students from 1987, when they were 9th and 10th graders, to now, when they are in their mid-30s, Mortimer has been able to study closely the role of work in teenagers’ lives. What she found surprised her: Steady work of 10 to 15 hours a week actually helps improve students’ grade point averages and educational aspirations.

“One of the big surprises in the research is how important early work experience is. There’s a tendency to discount them,” she said. “The big surprise is that the early patterns of work are set in high school. Teenage work does matter.”

Steady workers actually have higher GPAs and educational aspirations than non-workers, occasional workers, or those who work sporadically –working long hours for a time, followed by periods of no work, she found.

The lowest GPAs and educational ambitions were among teens like Shelly — those who consistently worked more than 20 hours a week.

Mortimer believes regular, moderate work during high school teaches time management, people skills and other skills that pay off for teens from low-income backgrounds as well as those from wealthier families. “If you’re a low-promise kid but somehow get into this pattern, that helps propel them into the high-promise trajectory,” she said.

Emma Levitt, an 18-year-old senior at Edison High School in Minneapolis, has had that kind of work experience. She worked at Dinsmore Cleaners for about three years until changing jobs in late September.

Although she worked anywhere from 15 to 25 hours a week, her job was not that hard to do while maintaining a high school career and a steady GPA. “I worked at a dry cleaners. They encourage us to do homework or read a book if there aren’t any customers and our work is finished,” said Levitt.

Most teen workers do not have the opportunity to sit down and read a chapter from “Catcher in the Rye” between customers. In one state survey of 152,000 Minnesotan teens who work for pay, eight per cent said they needed a job to help support their families. These students might find it especially hard to limit their hours and not succumb to the pressure to work a lot.

Overall, Mortimer expresses that work is good with limits. Don’t work too much, similar to don’t eat too much candy, you’ll get cavities. 

Related sidebars

Finding the right path by Paris Porter

Setting limits on my spending by Ariel Kendall

Legislators look for ways to end poverty in Minnesota by Alexandra Sifferlin

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