When the Reagan administration first proposed a lower minimum wage for teen-age workers four years ago, I strongly condemned that solution to youth unemployment. Not only did I think a subminimum wage would hurt young people and discourage employers from hiring them for jobs, I also worried that it would displace adult workers and perhaps undermine the minimum wage standard for all workers.
I still have those same concerns and other reservations as well.
But with a staggering 41 percent of black teen-agers out of work, in desperation I'm having second thoughts about the Reagan administration's latest version of the proposal, which calls for a trial summertime subminimum wage for youths aged 16 to 19.
I share the doubts of noted social scientist Bernard E. Anderson, formerly of the Rockefeller Foundation and now a visiting Princeton University fellow. He argues that experience during the 1970s, amply documented in studies, indicates that employers are reluctant to hire inexperienced black youths even when completely reimbursed by the government.
"The object should not be to get the lowest wage rate, but training and education to improve their productivity," he says.
I also share the doubts of manpower experts who attended a Howard University National Conference on Black Youth Unemployment.
Not only would it displace older workers, but they said it would even go so far as to heighten competition between white male youth and black male adults.
Organized labor's opposition also is understandable. They worry that a lowered youth wage could erode existing minimum wage provisions, putting the entire minimum wage structure, and even collective bargaining itself, in jeopardy.
Dr. Robert B. Hill, a social science researcher, sees black workers particularly at risk because some "are currently being paid subminimum wages anyway in violation of federal minimum wage guidelines."
Of course, I don't think anticapitalist sentiment prompted the NAACP, National Urban League and the Congressional Black Caucus to oppose the subminimum wage.
Indeed, all of these organizations favor capitalism, but they oppose what could be exploitive.
Unlike the National Conference of Black Mayors, which favors the subminimum wage, these civil rights organizations do not have to directly contend with the epidemic of jobless youth standing on street corners.
Some big city mayors, on the other hand, while no longer seeing any real hope of obtaining federal funds to help these kids, still do not support the administration proposal.
But despite all of these dangers, the scandalous level of youth joblessness still leads me to conclude that the subminimum wage proposals now before Congress deserve a trial run during the next couple of summers. According to the Labor Department, the proposal will assist it in finding 400,000 new jobs, and, if the agency is true to its word, many youths would be helped.
But if the agency is not true to its word and double crosses both the kids and the American workers, then many youths and adults would be subjected to a new system of compensation at a level bordering on slavery.
Aside from this meager proposal, the Reagan administration has not done a damn thing to fight teen unemployment. In fact, the administration is responsible for letting the problem become so drastic that many people like me who would never have considered supporting a subminimum wage are being forced to do so.
That coercion aside, I think it is so important to teach young people, particularly disadvantaged black youth, the value of work and self-sufficiency that even a job paying a subminimum wage is better than no job at all.
The teen-agers who protested in front of the Labor Department last week (in advance of yesterday's Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee hearings on the administration proposal) said "subminimum wages will lead to subminimum jobs . . . resulting in subminimum lives."
But they left out one important factor: While it is important to always fight for justice and reject exploitation, on a temporary basis something is better than nothing, particularly if it brings with it the potential for training and experience, and takes a child off the hazardous streets.