Nimble Little Fingers


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."

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  1. Here is a theory that lonewacko might like:

    Get rid of all child labor laws and illegal immigration might decrease. When I tried to get a legitimate (meaning taxed) job at 14 years old I had to jump through numerous holes: paying to get a work permit and making sure I didn't work more than a certain number of hours in a school week. Except for working less due to sports at some times I have been continously employed since 14 and worked at least 25 hours every week through college.

  2. I used to have an interest in an ice cream store where we employed high school kids. The kids were limited by law in the number of hours they could work but they begged for more hours.

    When we decided to stop skirting the law and hire more kids they really good employees threatened to quit. So, we caved and let the kids work as much as they wanted to. BTW, all the kids were good to excellent students and good to excellent employees (and the parents didn't mind either). Man if we did that today, they'd throw us in jail.

    Oh, we were talking about poor kids that worked to avoid starvation in Kathy Lee's sweatshops. Sorry.

    Great piece Jesse and, of course, Virginia.

  3. My BuGMeNot thingy isn't working so I can't read Virginia's piece --- but I am curious if she mentions that in some instances where (naive) Western activists have succeeded in closing down child-labor driven factories, the parents, subsequently did NOT send their children to school. To substitute for their now lost income, they were sent to the streets to work as prostitutes. From bad to worse.

  4. It's funny, I've met more than a few blue-collar types who love to tout the alleged "victories" of organized labor, including the end of child labor. They always love to use the most ugly Upton-Sinclair-inspired visions of Guilded Age breaker boys being crushed to death in mills and 12-year-old seamstresses working by candlelight in some hot, dirty, sweatshop in the middle of Hell's Kitchen. HOWEVER, when they talk about "kids these days" they accuse them of being lazy, shiftless, and only wanting to sit in front of the X-Box all day.


  5. Akira,
    To them, child labor is ok as long as it's mowing the grass, helping to remodel the house, working on the yard. In that case, it's not child labor; it's building character.

  6. Never really liked the term "Child Labor".

    I prefer "Creating Employment Opportunities for Youth".

  7. Djever live down south where it was so hot you always left the windows cracked on the car? Djever lock yourself out of said vehicle? Djever commandeer a youth with slim forearm and nimble fingers to reach through the cracked window to unlock the door?
    Did Kathy Lee Gifford ever do that?
    Just wondering.

  8. And then, of course, there's the war on drugs. That one government initiative has created far more jobs for children than the government has eliminated. And the pay is exponentially better.

  9. I'm not sure that getting rid of child labor laws would decrease imigration. Many companies in states with high imigration already prefer to hire imigrants over american teenagers of working age, even for jobs that american teenagers are actually competing for (low paying, but following the minimum wage etc.).

  10. "taking additional steps to prevent the kids from working is punishing the poorest for being poor."

    To which we all let out a collective, "Duh!"

  11. ...Edmonds said in an interview, "the conventional view was that child labor really wasn't about poverty."

    That was never the impression I took away from historians that studied child labor in the 18th and 19th centuries.


    Are you a labor historian? If so, we could have some interesting conversations. 🙂

  12. As a child I loved to work but it's not the same as being forced to but are they forced to by force or forced into a situation? I dunno but looking at the perhaps physical inactivity of some of todays youngers just in the us perhaps some work wouldn't hurt?

    Not at all what you meant to address most likley but.

  13. I myself employ midgets.

  14. Whereas I employ Oompa Loompas.

  15. In Dicken's time, the alternative to child labor may have been child abandonment. I asked Cathy to assure me that closing her sweat shops improved the living conditions of her former workers, but no answer.

  16. As libertarians, we're all about choice, right? As adults, we're able to assess risks and choose the course of action that best suits us. Including what jobs to take.

    Are children able to make these same decisions equally as well? Especially if the job involves life-threatning risks?

    If we still had child labor here in the US, would the company act in loco parentis?

    Even without the current child labor laws, there are a whole slew of other legal issues. Just think of the liability the company would have for the health and well being of an employed 7-year old. Think of the lawsuits if the child was hurg or killed. Or would the parent still be responsible?

  17. I worked as illegal child labor one summer when I was 12. There was an electronics company in the same building as my dad's and they needed someone to test hardware. we had just moved to Raliegh and I was bored and an electronics geek, so I had a great time. I was very disappointed when they fired me because it was illegal. I made some nice coin too, $7 an hour.

  18. "taking additional steps to prevent the kids from working is punishing the poorest for being poor."

    Well, it's punishing the poor PARENTS, but one could argue that it's still helping the poor kids. If at least a sizable minority get a bit more education in the bargain, that is.

    Working in the factory at 8 might get the family more money, but it means the kid will never be able to do anything more than work in a factory. Are you Randians ready to call that a good thing?

  19. There would seem to be a plausible middle ground here - maybe aid groups paying parents for their kids' educational achievement?

  20. I'm also not sure how useful it is to postulate a "culture/poverty" dichotomy. Culture and material conditions aren't exactly independent variables.

  21. Companies should just be forced to disclose the labor conditions on product packaging. That way customers would appreciate the reality of the moral choice they make when spending.

    It is too easy to be a Scarlett O'Hara and not think about the moral implications of one's consumption. The problem is that we might all burn in hell for this insouciance.

    It seems like better gov't regulation could: (1) preserve consumer choice; while still (2) making sure that consumers have some idea how much blood is on their sneakers.

  22. "Working in the factory at 8 might get the family more money, but it means the kid will never be able to do anything more than work in a factory. Are you Randians ready to call that a good thing?"

    How are you so sure of that? It sure worked out for making good farmers, silversmiths, printers, etc. when such labor was called an "apprenticeship", which now means sitting around a table and whining to Donald Trump.

    BTW - how many factory jobs are there where an 8 year old is a better option than a fully trained worker? I am betting not many.

  23. Don,

    Give me a fucking break. I'd love to see you put your 8-year-old in a factory if it's such a great career move.

  24. M1EK:

    If the alternative were starvation or prostitution, dern right I'd put my kids to work in a sweatshop.

  25. NotDon,

    And that's bullshit. There's zero evidence of starvation being the other alternative for child laborers, and nearly zero evidence for prostitution.

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