Roosevelt HIgh School junior Guadalupe Castro works on homework after school. Photo by Jennifer Lam
A typical school night for most teens may be made up of sports practice, dinner, homework and maybe a study session. But school nights don’t look like this for 16-year-old Theodore Roosevelt High School student Guadalupe Castro. Ever since he was ten, he’s had a job cleaning floors and scrubbing toilets as a janitor working night shifts.
After a long day at school, tennis and marching band practice, Castro gets home at about 6 p.m. He helps out by cooking dinner for the whole family before they all rush off to that night’s scheduled cleaning, which runs until 9:30 p.m. If he’s lucky, he’ll finish his homework on the car ride home. If not, a long night awaits him until he does.
Many teens in Boyle Heights feel it’s their responsibility to help their families make ends meet although it may affect their academics.
Castro works three times a week helping his parents clean stores and other venues. His parents picked up this family side job after his father’s work hours as a tailor were cut and his wages dropped to $200 a week.
Although Castro doesn’t ask to get paid for his hours worked, his parents give him $25 for working Sundays. That’s enough to pay his cell phone bill. His parents make a combined total of $1,000 a week for the family of four.
Not thinking twice about it, Castro says he doesn’t mind being a working student because he knows his parents need his help. “I saw that they were struggling, so I just started helping them.”
Economy hits teen employment rate
The tough economy has meant there are fewer jobs for teens now than there were in the past. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. unemployment rate for 16-to-19-year-olds is currently 25%, nearly twice as high as it was in 2000. In California, teens have been hit even harder. As of December 2012, the state’s teen unemployment rate jumped to 35 percent, up from 17% in the year 2000.
Castro didn’t apply for a job in retail or at a fast food joint–he jumped on whatever he could. This is the case for many students like Castro who step up to provide support for their struggling families.
An analysis of data by the Economic Policy Institute showed that in 2009, teens from poor families were less likely to find work than their middle-class peers.
“The labor market is particularly difficult to the disadvantaged. People from lower income backgrounds and people of color tend to have worse labor market outcomes,” explains Algernon Austin, director of the Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy at the Economic Policy Institute.
Austin adds that in communities where people generally have low levels of education, the jobs teenagers take are likely the same type of work they will have as adults. However, it’s been particularly difficult for young workers to find jobs because “they generally have low levels of skill and little experience, which makes them less desirable to employers.”
But while students are pitching in to help the family, they’re not as attentive to their school-time commitments.
Castro started working in elementary school at the age of 10. But work didn’t affect his academics until high school, when the workload became too heavy to manage.
“[My grade point average] started going down because I would get home tired, like really tired, and I would finish half my homework. Then while I was doing homework, I would fall asleep out of exhaustion,” says Castro.
Joanna Williams, assistant professor of education at the University of Virginia, analyzed past data with other researchers on the effects of part-time work on adolescents. The 2011 study found that teens were likely to spend less time on homework the more hours they worked.
“We found that kids who were working in these higher intensity jobs more than 20 hours a week over the course of a year had higher levels of substance abuse and higher levels of disobedient behavior compared to kids that were working less or working not at all,” she says.
Teens surveyed also reported that that their minds wandered in class; they had lower expectations for doing well; they were less engaged in school, and moved from harder to easier classes in order to try to do well.
Culture plays a role in why teens work
Maylet Flores, a sophomore at Animó Oscar de la Hoya Charter High School grew up seeing her brothers help their single mother with the family business. So at 13, when Flores was asked to help sell toys at her mother’s booth at el Mercado de Los Angeles on weekends, it was the passing of a torch from her older brothers.
She admits that she often doesn’t want to work because she’d rather spend time on homework and school projects.
“School is going to get me further and staying here isn’t going to get me anywhere,” she said as she sits surrounded by toys to be sold.
But Flores understands how important her time and effort are to her family. If she didn’t lend a hand, her mother would have to hire a worker, something she can’t financially afford.
“I feel I have to come and help my mom and do my part,” says Flores.
Williams, says many teens from immigrant cultures work because they focus on collective goals and put group priorities first.
“There is just going to be a natural tendency for kids with the cultural background to be expected to contribute to their family’s well being,” said Williams.
Castro and Flores say no one is pressuring them to work, but they do feel it’s their obligation. Their parents, they say, also understand the importance of education and hope their kids get the college education they never did.
“[My parents] feel proud because I’m taking stress off them,” says Castro. “I don’t feel like I should be getting paid for helping them out. I just do it out of my own heart.”