In Arkansas, children as young as 14 will soon be able to work up to 48 hours a week—without the permission of their parents. Iowa legislators are considering a bill that would allow teens to work in mining and meatpacking. And in Ohio, a bill currently sailing through the legislature would let 14- or 15-year-olds work until 9 pm year-round.
Why is the Republican Party suddenly weakening child labor restrictions? As the loud outcry in response to the recent New York Times exposé of immigrant children working long hours in punishing jobs demonstrates, the public is not clamoring to bring back child labor. Yet this cause is in perfect keeping with the GOP’s larger project of rolling back equality. Moreover, the effort to get more children working longer goes hand in hand with the assault on public education that is underway across the country.
Prior to the 20th century, American children worked not only because they had to but also because of early concerns about the poor becoming burdens on taxpayers. In 1641, leaders in Plymouth, Mass., ordered that any families receiving “relief” ensure that their children were employed; if not, the town would put them to work “according to their strength and abilities.” Even two centuries later, many Massachusetts children were working longer hours than most modern adults. An 1842 reform law, for instance, limited children under 12 to no more than 10 hours of work per day.
Because they could be paid less than adults, children were often a threat to organized labor. After all, if a mill owner or mine manager could employ two children for the price of one adult, it often made little economic sense to hire older workers. In 1836, the National Trades’ Union convention became the first body to call for a minimum age for factory work. And as mechanization continued to limit the demand for unskilled workers, organized labor became increasingly concerned with the issue. In 1881, for instance, the American Federation of Labor urged states to outlaw the employment of children under 14.
This coincided with concerns about the health and well-being of young people, which became increasingly more prevalent at the dawn of the so-called Progressive Era. In 1872, the Prohibition Party became the first political party to include in its national platform a provision that condemned the use of children in industry. And the burgeoning women’s movement became increasingly active on the issue, pushing particularly for compulsory education laws that would effectively ban child labor by mandating school attendance.
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As it turned out, the push to end child labor by mandating education was highly effective. By 1918, all states had compulsory schooling laws on the books. Twenty years later, the Fair Labor Standards Act established federal child labor provisions that are still in place (and which states like Arkansas may soon sue to overturn). And the result, as expected, was a net gain for adult employment. As one observer wrote in a 1946 US Department of Labor publication: “Laws preventing child labor, like other laws for the protection of workers, help to improve working and living conditions for all the people.”
But such laws did more than keep children out of the workplace—they also decreased inequality. After all, compulsory attendance laws didn’t change the amount of education received by young people at the high end of the schooling spectrum, as there was no encouragement to attend school beyond the minimum age for leaving. They did, however, set a new floor for young people at the bottom end of that spectrum. As a result, compulsory schooling created greater parity across lines of race, class, and gender—and it did so at taxpayer expense.
Today, we take this for granted. Obviously children shouldn’t work in factories. Of course they receive a free education through the end of 12th grade. Yet arriving at this consensus took a radical intervention in the nature of American society, establishing a collective responsibility for one another’s children. Even as late as the mid-20th century, observers were making the case that ending child labor would require “improv[ing] school opportunities, strengthen[ing] compulsory school attendance laws, and improv[ing] instruction to meet the abilities and special needs of all pupils.” Today, many of us have forgotten how long it took to achieve that.
As Republican legislatures across the United States work to undermine public education—through private school voucher schemes, efforts to roll back minimum requirements for teachers, and the imposition of limits on what teachers can teach and children can learn—they are also opening the door to an alternative: employment. Getting students out of school and into the workforce will save taxpayers money, and may even help some families meet their bottom lines. But it will come at a significant cost, at least if we are concerned with inequality.
Today all young people in the United States receive a taxpayer-supported education through the end of high school. Some states have even taken the bold step of creating PK-14 pathways, which support students through two years of community college. Because of this, we live in a more equal society—one in which the conditions of one’s birth are less predictive of life outcomes than they otherwise might be. School, alone, can’t remedy inequality; but right now it’s the best thing we do.
In a new book, The Big Myth: How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway remind us that the most strident opposition to banning child labor in the early 20th century came from conservative business interests. Industry groups like the National Association of Manufactures objected—not just because it would mean the loss of a compliant workforce, but also because they rejected the vision of equality that outlawing child labor was meant to advance. As business groups argued, not all children should go to school; some were meant to work in factories.
Peeling back child labor laws and undermining public education is, at its core, about restoring a vision of society that is profoundly unequal, one in which schooling is the privilege of those families who can afford it, and work for those can’t. It’s about washing our hands of one another. And while the economically well-off may gain in the short term, we will all pay the cost in the long run for a society that no longer views itself as such—a nation in which we throw other people’s children to the wolves.