In Arkansas, 14-year-olds will soon be permitted to work up to 48 hours each week without their parent’s consent.
Meanwhile, a bill being considered by the Ohio Assembly would permit 14- and 15-year-olds to work until 9 p.m. every day of the year.
Why is the Republican Party now altering its stance on child labour?
Republican legislatures nationwide are trying to weaken public education by implementing private school voucher programmes, lowering minimum teacher standards, and restricting what students and teachers can learn.
Restoring a deeply unequal image of society, one in which education is a privilege for those families who can afford it and work for those who can’t, is at the heart of rolling back child labour regulations and eroding public education.
In Arkansas, 14-year-olds will soon be permitted to work up to 48 hours each week without their parent’s consent. Legislators in Iowa are debating a measure that would let teenagers work in the meatpacking and mining industries. Meanwhile, a bill being considered by the Ohio Assembly would permit 14- and 15-year-olds to work until 9 p.m. every day of the year.
Why is the Republican Party now altering its stance on child labour? The public is not clamouring for the return of child labour, as evidenced by the loud outcry in response to the recent New York Times exposé of immigrant children working long hours in unpleasant jobs. But, this cause is entirely consistent with the GOP’s greater goal of reversing equality. Furthermore, the campaign to make more kids work longer shifts coincides with the nationwide assault on public education.
Before the 20th century, children in America worked out of necessity and because there were early worries about the impoverished becoming a drain on taxpayers. Plymouth, Massachusetts officials proclaimed in 1641 requiring any families receiving “relief” to ensure their children were worked; otherwise, the town would put them to work “according to their strength and capacities.” Many Massachusetts youngsters still worked more hours than most modern adults, even 200 years later. For example, a reform law passed in 1842 restricted children under 12 to no more than 10 hours of work every day.
Children were frequently dangerous to organised labour because they were generally paid less than adults. After that, it often didn’t make economic sense to hire older workers if a mill owner or mine manager could hire two minors for the price of one adult. The National Trades’ Union conference was the first organisation to demand a minimum age for factory labour in 1836. Yet as mechanisation kept reducing the demand for unskilled workers, organised work started to worry more and more about the problem. For instance, the American Union of Labor encouraged governments to forbid hiring minors under 14 in 1881.
During the start of the so-called Progressive Era, worries about the health and well-being of young people started to become more widespread. The Prohibition Party was the first political party to include a clause denouncing the employment of children in the workplace in its national programme in 1872. And the developing women’s movement grew more involved in the debate, advocating for laws requiring all children to attend school, thus outlawing child work.
It turned out that the campaign to stop child labour by requiring schooling was very successful. All states had legislation in place requiring children to attend school by 1918. Twenty years later, the Fair Labor Standards Act established federal child labour laws that are still in effect (although some states, like Arkansas, may soon file a lawsuit to overturn them). And as was to be expected, adult employment saw a net increase. “Rules against child labour, like other laws for the protection of employees, assist in enhancing working and living conditions for all people,” one observer observed in a 1946 publication by the US Department of Labor.
But these rules did more than only prevent kids from working; they also reduced inequality. Since there was no incentive to continue attending school after the minimal age for leaving, legislation requiring compulsory attendance had little effect on the education received by young people at the upper end of the educational range. But, they did create a new baseline for young people at the low end of that range. As a result, and at the taxpayers’ expense, compulsory education increased equality along racial, social, and gender lines.
Today, we consider this to be standard. Of course, young people shouldn’t work in manufacturing. Of course, their education is free up until the end of the 12th grade. But developing a shared responsibility for one another’s children required a fundamental intervention in American society to reach this accord. Ending child labour would involve “improving educational chances, strengthening obligatory school attendance legislation, and improving instruction to fit the abilities and specific needs of all kids,” as observers argued as recently as the middle of the 20th century. Many of us are unaware of how long it took to accomplish that.
Republican legislatures nationwide are trying to weaken public education by implementing private school voucher programmes, lowering minimum teacher standards, and restricting what students and teachers can learn. Yet, they are also creating employment opportunities. Taxpayers will save money by having youngsters leave school and enter the economy, and some families may even benefit. Yet, if we are worried about inequality, it will come at a considerable cost.
All American youths today receive a taxpayer-funded education until they graduate high school. Even more audaciously, several states have established PK–14 routes that aid students through two years of community college. Because of this, our society is more equitable; birth circumstances no longer have as much of an influence on a person’s life outcomes as they once did. Although education alone cannot eliminate inequality, it is now the best course of action.
The Great Myth: How American Business Trained Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market, a new book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, reminds us that conservative business groups were the most vocal opponents outlawing child labour in the early 20th century. Industry organisations objected, including the National Association of Manufacturers, not only because it would result in the loss of a compliant workforce but also because they denied the equality that is abolishing child labour was intended to promote. As business organisations claimed, not all youngsters should attend school; some were designed to work in industries.
Restoring a deeply unequal image of society, one in which education is a privilege for those families who can afford it and work for those who can’t, is at the heart of rolling back child labour regulations and eroding public education. We need to clean our hands off one another. And even though the wealthy may benefit in the short run, a society that no longer sees itself as such—a country where we abandon the children of others to the wolves—will cost us all in the long run.