A New Look at Child Labor

I googled “child labor” recently, and all I could find was stuff on how much of it there still in the world, and why it was so bad. Nobody seems to be looking at, or even for, an upside. Okay, maybe this is kind of like looking for the upside of the Third Reich (the Volkswagen?) or the reign of Caligula (no bright ideas at all here.) But I think there are actually a few good things to be said about child labor, at least within proper limits.

Depending on what you mean by “labor.” If what you mean by “labor” is doing something that will wear you out and use you up within 20 years or less, no matter what age you start doing it at, then, no matter when you start, it’s a bad idea. Like coal mining, for instance. It was bad when 9-year-old kids were pulling coal carts in 19th-century England, and it’s just about as bad today when 45-year-old men die of Black Lung after 20 years of it, in Kentucky. The use of child labor instead of adult labor has all kinds of nasty side effects, such as lowering the general wage rate (under the odd misimpression that it‘s okay to pay for the same work at lower rates when a smaller person does the work,) and increasing the unemployment rate among adults. And working employees too hard and too long to allow them any kind of personal life or education is bad, whether you do it to kids or adults. Paying them so little that they have to supplement their wages with the only kind of “moonlighting” they have the time and energy for, namely prostitution—whether you do it to women or children—is as immoral as it gets. For further information, read Dickens.

In short, I’m not sure there is any way in which the bad side of child labor for the child is any worse than the bad side of adult labor for the adult worker. Since adults make the laws, and since one of the bad sides of child labor for adult workers is lowering wages and increasing unemployment, that didn’t really matter much once the groundswell against child labor started to grow. Progressivism and New Deal trade unionism both leaned strongly in the direction of getting people other than prime-working-age adult white males out of the workforce, using whatever rationale happened to be handy at the moment. Which was often good for families, good for adult workers, and good for The Economy.

But societies that have banned child labor (not to be confused with societies that have actually eliminated it) have created problems of their own. The most notable is that, in such societies, children are an economic liability to their parents, and may suffer abuse or neglect from them as a result. In places like China, if you can’t sell your child’s labor, you may end up selling the child instead. In places where nobody’s buying, you may simply abandon the child, either in some exposed place or in some “orphanage.” Either way, the child may die young or never develop its full mental and physical potential.

But as long as poverty persists among families, banning child labor is unlikely to completely eliminate it. Child labor persists in the US in fast food joints, on farms, and most notably in criminal enterprises, where the fact that a juvenile will get no more than a nominal punishment for conduct that could put an adult away for a long time makes “shorties” really desirable employees for look-out and courier duty.

Oddly enough, most families affluent enough not to need to put their children into the legal, semi-legal, or illegal workforce, tend not to expect much labor from them at home either. My mother, who was #5 of 8 children, once told me that her mother told her, “Once your oldest daughter is 8 years old, it doesn’t matter how many more you have; one of the older ones will always be able to take care of the younger ones.” Both because such large families are rare today, and because middle-class Americans disapprove of anybody under 12 doing any kind of child care or major domestic chores, this doesn’t happen any more. Child development “experts” generally believe that children should be expected to help out around the house and clean up after themselves, and should not get their allowance as “wages” for these tasks, but they get listened to only slightly more on this subject than on the topic of corporal punishment, which isn’t much.

Okay, that’s pretty much the adult side of the issue. What about the kids? The advantage of writing about children, of course, is that even if you’ve never raised one, you and every other person on the planet has been one. (Original sin consists of having been born with parents, which is why Adam and Eve escaped it.) Do y’all remember the time in your early teens and the years just before that when you really really really wanted to do something real and significant and useful and necessary? There are long stages of child development in which the child’s play consists of nothing but imitating (to the best of her knowledge and ability) the adult’s work. Sometimes that knowledge and ability can be pretty impressive. The computer skills of people we usually regard as “kids” can be downright amazing, and sometimes even remunerative. The Wired Daughter, between ages 15 and 18, got herself a job in a social service agency working with runaway youth, doing all kinds of statistical correlation and record-keeping, much more skilfully and assiduously than most adults I have known doing the same kind of work. Because it was a non-profit, nobody worried much about child labor laws, least of all our daughter, who was having the time of her life. Once she turned 18 she turned (temporarily, thank heaven) into a slacker. But not letting her do the work of her choice before that would have been a real injustice to her. When my nephew was the same age, he worked until well after the official closing time in a local restaurant, and found it both enjoyable and liberating. When I was the same age, I was learning to sew, and type, and cook, and write. All of us, of course, were also going to school and doing pretty well at it. None of us were dependent on earnings from such work. Which gets rid of most of the downside of child labor. I think that’s just a stage of development kids go through, with or without compensation, and it’s a good thing for all of us that they do.

On the other hand…

As more and more “middle-class” families in the US find themselves sliding out of the bourgeoisie, the role of child labor in such families will become more and more difficult. Most middle-class and even working-class families today do not expect their children to contribute to the household income, even by paying rent when they are working full-time and living with their parents. Most middle-class parents are really uncomfortable sharing the financial realities of their lives with their children (often, even after the said “children” have long since reached adulthood.) The whole point of being “middle-class” in this culture’s families is that the parents never have to admit to their children that they can’t “make it” in this economy, or even seriously discuss what it would mean not to ”make it.” No doubt it’s comfortable for a child to believe that the parents will always be able to “manage,” just as it’s comfortable for the child to believe that Daddy can beat up any other guy on the block. Until recently, the majority of American kids had no reason to disbelieve either proposition. Now, child development “experts” are taking on these issues, with varying degrees of success. It would probably help them, and the parents they advise, and the children who do or don’t benefit from that advice, if we could start talking more explicitly about what children can do to help their families in a bad economy, and why letting them do it isn’t unthinkable.

Red Emma

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