Nimble Little Fingers

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Virginia Postrel searches for the roots of child labor:

When he started working on child labor issues six years ago, [Dartmouth economist Eric V.] Edmonds said in an interview, "the conventional view was that child labor really wasn't about poverty." Children's work, many policy makers believed, "reflected perhaps parental callousness or a lack of education for parents about the benefits of educating your child." So policies to curb child labor focused on educating parents about why their children should not work and banning children's employment to remove the temptation.

Recent research, however, casts doubt on the cultural explanation. "In every context that I've looked at things, child labor seems to be almost entirely about poverty. I wouldn't say it's only about poverty, but it's got a lot to do with poverty," Professor Edmonds said.

In one paper, Edmonds reviewed what happened when Vietnam stopped blocking the export of rice, a change that, in Virginia's words, "opened a big new market for Vietnamese farmers — the country went from almost no exports to being one of the world's top rice exporters — and significantly raised the price of rice."

Professor Edmonds said he expected that the booming market for rice would lead more children to work in agriculture, if only on their own families' farms, because the value of their labor had risen substantially. But that was not what happened.

"Instead, it looks like what households did was, with rising income, they purchased substitutes for child labor. They used more fertilizers. There was more mechanization, more purchasing of tools," he said, adding, "It was the opposite of what I expected to find coming in."…

"Most child labor policy even today is directed at trying to get kids into unemployment — to limit working opportunities for kids," he said in the interview. But, "if households are already in a situation where they don't want their children to be working, but they're forced to because of their circumstance, taking additional steps to prevent the kids from working is punishing the poorest for being poor."