An aged Native American chieftain was visiting New York City for the first time in 1906. He was curious about the city, and the city was curious about him. A magazine reporter asked the chief what most surprised him in his travels around town. “Little children working,” the visitor replied.
Child labor might have shocked an outsider, but it was all too commonplace then across urban, industrial America, as well as on farms, where it had been customary for centuries. Well into the twentieth century, industrial capitalism depended on the exploitation of children who were cheaper to employ, less able to resist, and until the advent of more sophisticated technologies, were well suited to deal with the relatively simple machinery then in place.
In more recent times, however, it became a far rarer sight. The Progressive movement and the labor unions combatted child labor until President Roosevelt made “oppressive child labor” illegal with the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The practice has since come to be seen as something repulsive. Law and custom, most of us assume, drove it to near extinction. Our reaction, if we were to see it reappear, might resemble that chief’s: shock and disbelief.
You might be in for a rude awakening: Child labor is making a comeback with a vengeance. A striking number of lawmakers are making concerted efforts to weaken or repeal statutes that have long prevented, or at least seriously inhibited, the possibility of exploiting children.
A nationwide campaign for child labor
Take a breath and consider this: The number of kids at work in the US increased by 37% between 2015 and 2022. During the last two years, 14 states have either introduced or enacted legislation that rolled back regulations governing the number of hours children can be employed, lowered the restrictions on dangerous work or legalized subminimum wages for youths.
Iowa now allows those as young as 14 to work in industrial laundries. At age 16, they can take jobs in roofing, construction, excavation and demolition and can operate power-driven machinery. Fourteen-year-olds can now even work night shifts, and once they hit 15 can join assembly lines. All of this, of course, was prohibited not so long ago.
In 2014, the Cato Institute, a right-wing think tank, published “A Case Against Child Labor Prohibitions,” arguing that such laws stifled opportunity for poor — and especially black — children.
The Foundation for Government Accountability, a think tank funded by a range of wealthy conservative donors including the DeVos family, has spearheaded efforts to weaken child labor laws. Americans for Prosperity, the billionaire Koch brothers’ foundation, has joined in.
Nor are these new laws confined to red states like Iowa or the South. California, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota and New Hampshire, as well as Georgia and Ohio, have been targeted, too. Even New Jersey passed a law in the pandemic years temporarily raising the permissible work hours for 16- to 18-year-olds.
Legislators offer fatuous justifications for such infringements of long-settled practice. Working, they tell us, will get kids off their computers or video games or away from the TV. Or it will strip the government of the power to dictate what children can and can’t do, leaving parents in control — a claim already transformed into fantasy by efforts to strip away protective legislation and permit 14-year-old kids to work without formal parental permission.
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