The Buzz

The facts, faces and hum of local politics with Steve Kraske and Dave Helling

Really, is it good for the children?

03/27/2014 3:21 PM

03/27/2014 3:21 PM

The Kansas City Council decided several years ago to think about kids when debating policy. Today the fact sheet for proposed city ordinances poses a question: Is it good for the children?

I always chuckle when I see it. I haven’t read every ordinance in the last two decades, but I haven’t seen one yet that says it’s bad for the children.

The laughter fades, though, when we consider the many ways grown-ups can still exploit kids, especially teenagers and young adults. It isn’t very funny.

Sometimes the treatment is so common it’s hard to see. Many teen baby sitters are paid less than they deserve. Young adults can be paid a sub-minimum wage, for a time at least. I’m still not convinced teen curfews are fair or workable.

Sometimes, though, it gets more attention. This week the government said football players at Northwestern University are employees, under federal law, and its scholarship athletes can unionize.

The decision will play out in the courts, and we might have a robust argument over whether unions are a good idea for young athletes. But almost all of us could agree the ruling confirms what we feel intuitively: Something is wrong when adults grow enormously wealthy from what is, essentially, unpaid student labor.

That feeling isn’t limited to scholarship sports. This week, hundreds of thousands of high school and college students are sweating summer internships, in which they provide free labor to profit-making entities in exchange for experience.

Some experience, working for nothing.

Businesses and the NCAA fiercely defend internships and college sports. Experience and competition have value, they insist, which is why young adults line up to play, and be interns.

They have a point, but they may miss the bigger picture. In this country, adults are entitled to a portion of the wealth they create, either as employees or from the businesses they own. Somehow, though, the rule doesn’t apply until you’re 21 (or even older: Some workers in their mid-20s are now asked to work as unpaid interns.)

The concrete may be cracking around college athletics and internships. Courts are considering lawsuits from players and ex-interns. At some point, Congress may step in.

The private sector has an opportunity to fix this on its own, but the window is closing. We don’t know what a full answer would look like. It might start with a recognition that something is wrong when adults get rich while their almost grown children get, um, experience.

That process might be helped by a good look at Kansas City’s ordinances and the not-so-funny question they ask.

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