On a hot and humid 88-degree summer day in Washington, D.C. in June, three teenagers were handcuffed and detained for selling water.
Yes, water. The teens were not selling drugs, stolen merchandise or bootleg cigarettes. They were selling water on the National Mall.
According to the U.S. Park Police, the teens were handcuffed for illegally vending without a license. They were detained by police but eventually released to their parents without charges. While this might seem like a minor incident, it is one all too frequent example of government taking away opportunities from young entrepreneurs.
These teenagers should have been celebrated for their initiative, not handcuffed. They saw a real human need and took action to meet it. On hot, humid days, people need water. These teens were not exploiting people or taking advantage of the needy; they were being creative problem-solvers. Isn't that what we want teenagers to aspire to become?
It is reasonable that people should comply with the law, but the question is whether the law reasonable. Is it reasonable to require teens to have a vending permit? In order to sell water on the National Mall, they would have to obtain a sidewalk vending permit from the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs for $1,200. They would also need an additional $476 for a Class A Vending License. To make matters worse, any teens selling water who are the primary license holders would have to pay a $55 fee for any of their friends to work with them. How are teenagers from low-income families supposed to do this?
But it gets worse. Even if three young teenagers could come up with the nearly $2,000 it takes to simply be allowed to sell water, they still couldn't do it. The D.C. Department of Consumer Affairs has recently put a hold on issuing street vending licenses, and there's a waitlist for new licenses with no indication of when licensing will resume.
And so every step of the way, government is working against these teenagers, not for them.
As low-skilled and usually inexperienced workers, teens don't have a lot of employment options. They typically find work in food and retail industries, especially during the summer months. But now, with the D.C. minimum wage increase to $12.50 per hour on July 1, teenage employment options are looking bleaker than before.
Teen unemployment in May was 14.3 percent, and research shows that high minimum wage correlates with high youth unemployment. After one recent increase in D.C.'s minimum wage, the number of restaurant jobs in D.C. fell while the suburbs of the area with a lower minimum wage saw an increase in those jobs.
And so not only has government created a net of permits and licenses that prevent teens from being entrepreneurs and helping their community, but it has also shrunk the chances of teens getting a job at all with misguided minimum wage hikes.
With few options if any, teens take creative action to meet real needs. And they are treated like criminals for it. Handcuffs communicate a message: You're doing something wrong. But it is not the three young men who acted criminally here.
After this story hit the news, two of the teens received job offers to work for H.O.P.E (Helping Other People Excel), a local IT training organization, helping the community gain better technical skills. This is great news for the teens, but why should a high-profile arrest be the only way black teens have to attain employment opportunities.
This is not a story about race, although I do wonder whether white college students from Georgetown would have been handcuffed for doing the same thing. This is a story about the mess that too much government makes. It is government forcing black teens into poor economic situations that leads to images of them in handcuffs.
Why are we then surprised that inner-city teens think the world is against them? If we label them "criminals" by handcuffing them for selling water — if government policy undermines their opportunity for low-skilled jobs and dashes their entrepreneurial spirit — why are we surprised that black inner-city teens lose hope about the future? If we want a more socially mobile society for everyone, then we need to do whatever we can to get government policies out of their way and let their entrepreneurial spirits thrive.
Dr. Anthony Bradley is an associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York City author of "Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development" (2011).
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