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Children Pay a High Price to Earn a Wage

Youth: Many kids from low-income families join the work force--at the cost of school and the joys of adolescence.

June 11, 1996|JOCELYN Y. STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sometimes the real world does not wait for the magic of 18 or 21.

Sometimes it sneaks in early, taps a kid on the shoulder and starts issuing demands.

And then a 15-year-old boy stakes out a spot among grown men and waits on a corner for work. A 12-year-old spends her evenings and weekends selling clothes at a swap meet.

These are the youngest members of the American labor force, pushed into the work world by economic necessity. In many cases, they are the only barrier to their families sliding headlong into poverty.

It is difficult to say just how many kids work because of need. Studies are few. But teachers and counselors throughout the San Fernando Valley tell of kids who teeter-totter daily between the workaday world of adults and their lives as students.

"Their families are not making it," said Maxine Cunningham, a teacher at Monroe High School in North Hills. "Parents need the help."

So do kids. Poverty saves its toughest blows for those under 18. Children make up 27% of the population, but 40% of the poor. In the Valley, 15.8% of all children live in poverty.

The money kids earn--often at work that violates child labor laws--buys groceries, pays the rent and helps their families survive.

"They're working because they need to . . . and they work mega-hours," said Johanna Spira, a teacher at Canoga Park High School. "It's not uncommon to see them working 30 hours a week."

Teachers see them in school, nodding off in the middle of class, missing assignments, falling behind. Some enroll in continuation or night schools, where the schedule is more flexible. And when balancing everything becomes too hard, some leave school--part of the "fallout" of recent hard times, said Spira, who has worked at Canoga High for eight years. "I see more of that than I've seen in the past."

Growing up under such circumstances makes adolescence a different journey, one that is forcing some parents, schools and youngsters to redefine this time of life. For these kids, the clock speeds ahead and a part of their youth is over, even while they are still in it.

"In my house nobody pays rent except for me," said Enrique Bonilla, an 18-year-old senior at Grant High School in Van Nuys. "I take care of the rent, my mom takes care of the other bills, then we go half and half with the food."

Without his help, the family would have to survive on about $800 a month.

Before the sun is up on this Saturday morning, Enrique is at Burger King. He works the cash register, cooks, cleans and after eight hours heads home to his North Hollywood apartment for a second shift, this time as apartment manager.

Before this day is over, he will repair a ceiling fan, help chop down tree branches overhanging the parking lot and clean a resident's carpet.

Enrique has found room on his shoulders for all the responsibilities he carries--including 16 hours at Burger King on weekends and hours more at the apartment building. He has made room for swim team practice, computers and, finally, a girlfriend, who is willing to go with him to clean and paint apartments because he has so little free time.

Man of the House

There are times when responsibilities collide and he must decide which to tend to first. In the winter when it rained, he chose work.

"A couple times I had to miss school," he said. "We had a lot of leaks in the building. I could've come, but the people were overflowing with water, so I had to take care of them."

This kind of responsibility is not new to him; Enrique has been playing the role of man of the house since he was a 7-year-old in El Salvador. That was the year his father left Sonsonate and came to the United States in search of work. For half a year, there was support. Then there was nothing.

"As time went on, he kind of forgot about us," Enrique said.

At the age of 10 he sold newspapers in El Salvador, to help buy food for himself and his brother. When he came to America at 13, his first job was working construction with an uncle. "The first thing I did was give [the money] to my mother," he said.

At 15, he became a day laborer standing on a Van Nuys street among men waiting for work. He found it, spending the summer hauling, tearing down fences and cleaning out a warehouse.

But this, he said, will not be his destiny. He is looking forward to graduation, starting his own carpet-cleaning business and saving enough money so that his mother--who cleans houses and works in a factory--can have a vacation.

"That's my prosperity," he said, nodding toward a rickety, black van. "That's what will get me out of Burger King."

Teachers say the kids who work are often filling in for absent parents.

"The comment I hear most often is, 'I'm going to help my mom, I need to help my mom,' " said Gary Jimenez of Overcoming Obstacles, a program that teaches life management and entrepreneurial skills to youngsters.

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