All legislation sends a message. American child labor laws send a clear one: everyone under the age of 18 needs to be protected from the capitalist exploitation known as “work.”
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression; it restricts working hours, occupations, and employers for all children under 12, almost all teens from ages 13-16, and most teens from 16-18. Only industries that had strong lobbying institutions in the 1930s were spared: some branches of agriculture, congressional pages, newspaper deliverers, and a few other minor employment opportunities.
As with most left-leaning restrictions, regulations, and redistribution schemes, child labor laws seem morally justified, sound in principle, and even an escape for youngsters trapped in what at first glance appears to be an eternal cycle of low-level education and subsequent low wages.
Legislation like the FLSA, however, is an example of symbolism over substance, a law chasing a trend, and an attention-seeking Washington attempting to take credit for a pre-existing societal shift. By 1930 only 6.4% of males and a diminutive 2.9% of females under the age of eighteen worked, indicating something that economists have been trying to explain to labor regulators for decades: parents and children usually make the best economic decisions for themselves. One-size-fits-all legislation like the FLSA usually fits no one and inhibits the very progress that makes it possible for a child or teen to support himself or herself and achieve success.
Still a divisive issue in 2014, child labors laws have elicited much argument in the past, including Rep. Fritz G. Lanham’s satirical 1924 argument against the FLSA:
Consider the Federal agent in the field; he toils not, nor does he spin; and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his populous household was not arrayed with powers like one of these.
Children, obey your agents from Washington, for this is right.
Honor thy father and thy mother, for the Government has created them but a little lower than the Federal agent. Love, honor, and disobey them.
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, tell it to thy father and mother and let them do it.
Six days shalt thou do all thy rest, and on the seventh day thy parents shall rest with thee.
Go to the bureau officer, thou sluggard; consider his ways and be idle.
Toil, thou farmer’s wife; thou shalt have no servant in thy house, nor let thy children help thee.
And all thy children shall be taught of the Federal agent, and great shall be the peace of thy children.
Thy children shall rise up and call the Federal agent blessed.
Lanham’s opposition to child labor laws was well-founded.
Good, Better, and Best
“Child labor laws sound great when you hear the talking points and look into the harsh reality of teens and children left with no other decision but to work, in historical context or even in today’s world,” said Steven, a young Lumberton resident, “But it’s a question of good, better, and best: if your alternatives were either to starve, to work at a farm for very low wages, or to work in a factory for sufficient (albeit still low) wages, which would you pick? If going to school meant starvation, would you still want to ban child labor?”
Situations vary drastically. Child labor laws cannot accommodate the millions of unique children, thousands of industries, hundreds of education levels, and the inimitable factors that combine to create a child’s or teen’s lifestyle. While a teen may have poor discernment, they understand that survival trumps education. (Not to mention that in third world countries, education is expensive, rare, and typically of low quality in the first place).
David Roodman explains:
We are all descendants of children who survived to adulthood only by laboring, whether as farmers or herders or gatherers. Only with their labor could the family subsist. I look forward to the day when there is no child on earth for whom this is the best choice. But we are not there yet. And we are not as close as you might think. Going by the numbers, the world has made great progress getting kids into school … how quick should we be to tell parents struggling under circumstances far different from our own what the right choice is?…
Self-interest is a crucial factor that makes child labor laws unnecessary and little more than a symbolic burden on the American teenage population. Getting a job before age 12 in a third world country usually signifies unfortunate circumstances; here it would almost always merely demonstrate a desire to earn a few extra bucks in the summer months. If the situation was genuinely bad enough, would it not be better anyway for a young adult to get a job than to lose everything?
Maybe a teen wants to learn more about his future career, practice a skill, or even just make some money from expertise he already has. In the United States, there is almost never a case where a child needs to support himself: but there are plenty of “underage” folks who want to save up for college and build up an impressive resume before age 20. Every situation is drastically different, and child labor laws are testimonies to the refusal of left-leaning regulators to realize that fact.
When a child or teen decides to start working a job—including in a third world country or developing nation—it may or may not be a good move to make, but it may be the best choice that this child has: child labor laws can limit or destroy these options and make it impossible for young people to get a firm footing on life.
Detrimental Symbolism Over Substance
Child labor laws limit options because they work on the assumption that all career choices require the same amount of training and experience. The trade-off might be worth it if the laws actually did something positive; however, they were not responsible for the drop in American child labor nor do they accomplish anything beneficial in today’s economy.
In other words, child labor laws are a complete flop and little more than a symbolic attempt to show that Washington “cares” about children in desperate situations. Oddly enough, Congress and FDR saw fit to eliminate some children’s best option during the Great Depression to show that they “cared.” Adopting child labor laws denies the fact that there are situations wherein a job before the age of 16-18 is the best option, and ignoring such circumstances exist is a demonstration of either callous disregard or deliberate ignorance.
From 1820 to 1930 child labor became prevalent, peaked, and then plummeted to almost nothing—all before the FLSA and without restrictions on labor. United States child labor laws were nothing but symbolic.
In “State Child Labor Laws and the Decline of Child Labor” (Explorations in Economic History) Carolyn Moehling explains that the employment rate of 13-year olds around the beginning of the twentieth century did decline in states that enacted age minimums of 14, but so did the rates for 13-year olds not covered by the restrictions. Overall, laws are linked to only a small fraction of the decline in child labor.
Curiously, the children “of the masses”—the commoners, the general public—had more money, more luxuries, more food, longer lifespans, more access to medical care, more clothing, and more education than any generation preceding them. The aristocracy has generally had the most access to education in almost all given historical settings, but in America, things were changing. The increased economic activity and burgeoning scientific discoveries of the late 19th century and early 20th century were giving children and teens not only a chance to survive, but a place to work and time to study. Somehow it happened without child labor laws.
The FLSA was scarcely a contributing reason for the drastic reduction and practical elimination of child labor between 1880 and 1940. Economists attribute the drop in child labor to economic growth (which brought rising incomes, shorter hours, and larger schools) and industrialization. It allowed parents the financial luxury of keeping their children and teens out of the workforce, away from the farm, and instead in school.
The statistics prove that capitalism, not child labor laws, ended the fifty-year reign of child labor in the United States. Apparently these laws offer no benefits and nothing but detriment.
Child Labor Around the World: the Left’s Hypocrisy
While the Socialist Labor Party of America is adamant that “Child Labor [is] Still America’s Shame,” the fact is that the United States has one of the lowest child labor rates in the world. It was heading towards that ranking even before the FLSA was made law. This can be attributed to American free markets (currently our economic system most resembles interventionism, not laissez-faire capitalism) and technological innovation.
Daniel De Leon, an American socialist, said that “Socialism alone is the remedy for child labor.” Not to burst his bubble, but the worst child labor offenders in the world are socialist states, communist regimes, or outright dictatorships, where children are not banned from jobs but are instead required to work: North Korea, China, Cuba, Somalia, Ethiopia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan have the largest child workforces, for example.
Communists, socialists, and most left-leaning political parties have stolen the moral high ground, claiming that they oppose child labor and will pass laws to stop it. In reality they mean that they do not oppose child labor, but rather children working for the private sector. They will stifle or abolish private property, employment, and salaries to prevent this “atrocity”.
While banning child labor can actually place children in even worse situations than they were already in, forcing a teen or child to work—as communists are fond of doing—is much more devastating. Families split up, teens are abandoned altogether, and children are left to fend for themselves. Mandating labor requirements always has terrible aggregate results.
In the United States, children are not allowed to make the choice to work. In North Korea, however, the situation is inverted: work is required by law. State control over this delicate and formative life decision is a violation of inherent rights either way.
One excuse for the lobbyist-motivated child labor ban is so that “our youth can receive a quality education.” This is no reason to restrict nearly all young adults under age 18 from working. Some children graduate early—maybe even by age 14—and are left with a few years of nothing before they head to college. Others have plans for occupations like leather-working, carpentry, or plumbing, and while a “quality education” is important to finish, there’s not a reason they cannot practice their craft for pay.
While Washington may not be creative enough to think of situations wherein it is possible to both work a part-time job and attend school at the same time, students are. Despite the fact, it’s still illegal.
A summer job can be better education than schooling, and in some cases manual labor is very convincing to pre-teens and teens who don’t feel motivated to do well in school or get a college degree. Child labor laws ignore this, making it impossible for students who are ahead, graduated early, need experience in their future field, or a slight motivation to study harder to avoid a lifetime of drudgery.
A “quality education” sometimes needs to include hands-on opportunities and the responsibilities that come with a job. Child labor laws are there to ensure that no such thing happens.
A Question of Morals
Many people support child labor laws for understandable moral reasons—perhaps out of concern for the teen or child (probably the biggest worry) and concern for the situations that might have driven them to employment.
If there was a situation so dire that a person under the age of 18 was seeking employment, consider this: if the situation is so bad that they are needing to support themselves, what good would it do to ban the employment option?
It is not the question of morals so much as it is the question itself. Allowing each individual and family a choice is infinitely better than guessing the majority’s decision and making other options criminal.
In desperate settings, child labor laws only tie the hands of young adults. In other circumstances—like a summer or after-school job—the law only serves to prevent good things from happening, which leads to an important issue: the work ethic.
The Work Ethic
“What lesson do we impart with child-labor laws? We establish early on who is in charge: not individuals, not parents, but the state. We tell the youth that they are better off being mall rats than fruitful workers. We tell them that they have nothing to offer society until they are 18 or so. We convey the impression that work is a form of exploitation from which they must be protected … We rob them of what might otherwise be the most valuable early experiences of their young adulthood,” said Jeffery Tucker.
Work is not exploitation, but child labor laws assume that it is: it engenders an entitlement mindset, and as Tucker mentioned, it does send a message that young people are worthless until they “are 18 or so.”
Responsibilities, schedules, deadlines, etiquette, and customs of the business world are only a few things that a part-time job could teach a young adult. Junior high or high school students searching for career options, wondering where they would do well, or questioning their prospective degree choices can benefit much from interning, getting a part-time job, or even just working at a fast food joint. Any and all work experience contributes to influence another employer that a worker is worth hiring.
Empty resumes are rarely noticed, and when it’s illegal to add anything until you’re past 16 years of age it can be difficult to accumulate enough experience to know where to go with life in time to make a decision about college.
President Obama refers to child labor laws as an example of “common sense rules of the road that strengthen our country without unduly interfering with the pursuit of progress and the growth of our economy.” Interference in the right to work and the right to hire is far from a “common sense” economic policy that strengthens the nation.
“Neither 16 or 18 are magic numbers—they are arbitrary limits thought up by regulators. ‘Child’ labor laws exclude vast portions of our population from the labor market, preventing young adults from being paid for their services and thus entirely eliminating the profit motive, meaning that most work is off-limits and the jobs available are voluntary. It should be no surprise to us that teens stay at home all summer and play video games,” said an anonymous Texas policy analyst, “The innovation and competition that young adults could bring to the workforce is lost to Mario Brothers because of ‘child’ labor laws.”
The Last Word
Child labor laws allegedly protect young people from ruthless employers. Reality, however, is a different matter.
On one end of the spectrum, youngsters who might face difficult financial situations or other circumstances are left with few options. Eliminating employment or limiting hours when a job is likely the only way out is hardly a good way to help them out.
On the other hand is a young adult maybe not dealing with extenuating circumstances but merely trying to earn money, find experience, or decide what to do with life, and “child” labor laws bring out the worst in all of these situations.
It may seem that the FLSA and other labor regulations brought an end to an era of child labor, but again, it was the state chasing a trend to sway popular opinion and bolster public support, not society bowing to the state. Laissez-faire capitalism did not create child labor on its own, but the free market ultimately ended the practice—not the state.
The largely symbolic child labor laws in the United States limit economic progress and innovation, harm the work ethic, and on top of that send a message of worthlessness to young adults—it’s long past time to do away with the FLSA and its kind.
Washington tells “worthless” young adults to wait for employment and refuse legal payment for services. Young adults should tell Washington to either cut it out or get out.