Blackadder’s Lair

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What To Do About Child Labor

Via Mark Shea, here is an interesting piece from Inside Catholic advocating an end to child labor laws in the United States.

Now I expect that to many the very notion that we should abolish laws restricting child labor will seem shocking and scandalous. The very term conjures up images of eight year olds in sweatshops, working long hours in poor conditions, to the detriment of their education and possibly even their health. It is something no parent could wish for their child.

Which is exactly the point. The vast majority of parents do not want their children to work, and certainly if the work involves poor conditions or interferes with a child’s education, almost any parent would do whatever they could to prevent this from happening. Outside of cases of severe poverty, therefore, no law restricting child poverty will be necessary, as parents themselves will either keep their children out of the workforce altogether, or allow it only on a limited and highly controlled basis (i.e. paper-routes, summer jobs, and the like). If, however, the choice is between having one’s children work and having them or their siblings starve, many parents will reluctantly allow their children to work, and in such a case telling a parent that his children cannot work is tantamount to telling him he must watch them die. At best, then, child labor laws will be a redundancy; at worst a cruelty.

Both the history of child labor in the United States, and the current practice of it in the developing world bear this out. Child labor was once quite common in the United States. In 1820, children aged 15 and younger made up 23% of the workforce in the Northeastern U.S. However, over the nineteenth and early twentieth century, as the standard of living of Americans improved, the percentage of children employed in child labor began to dramatically decline. In 1880 32.5% of boys aged 10 to 15 were employed. By 1900 it was 26.1%, and by 1930 the number had fallen to 6.4% (74.5% of which were employed in agriculture). It was only then, in 1938, that the current federal laws prohibiting child labor were passed. (A Child Labor Amendment to the Constitution had passed during the 1920s, but was not ratified by the requisite number of states, due largely to the opposition of the Catholic Church) Thus, those who think that without child labor laws kids would all be working in sweat shops have things exactly backwards. It was the decline in child labor that led to child labor laws, not the laws that led to the decline in child labor.

Similarly, there has been a great deal of work in recent years looking at the problem of child labor in the developing world which has largely confirmed the view that child labor is a result of poverty, not parental neglect, and that to try and stop this child labor before ending this poverty can have dire consequences. For example, according to a UNICEF study, between 5,000 and 7,000 children turned to child prostitution in Nepal after the U.S. banned the importation of carpets from that country on humanitarian grounds. Likewise, in the 1990s Senator Tom Harkin introduced the Child Labor Deterrence Act, which would have prohibited the importation into the U.S. of goods made by children under 15. While the act did not pass, the resulting publicity led to boycotts, which in turn led to 50,000 children losing their jobs. Many of these children turned to prostitution or to other, even more dangerous jobs.

This is an emotional issue, and my heart goes out to any child forced by circumstance to work in poor conditions, and to any parent forced to allow this to happen. But we cannot let the emotional nature of the issue cloud our judgment, or lead us to take actions that, out of a misguided moralism, only serve to make matters worse.

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January 23, 2008 - Posted by | Children, Economics

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