Keeping Kids Working

The Folly of Child Labor Bans


Child labor bans aim to improve children's welfare by getting them out of the workplace and into school. But do they actually do this?

A study published in October by the National Bureau of Economic Research examined changes in child labor data in India after 1986, when the country banned employing children under age 14 in manufacturing. The researchers-economists Prashant Bharadwaj of the University of California at San Diego, Leah K. Lakdawala of Michigan State University, and Nicholas Li of the University of Toronto-found that the law had perverse results: "Child wages decrease and child labor increases."

Poor Indian families living at the edge of subsistence need the wages earned by their children to survive. The ban created a black market in child labor that reduced earnings. To make up for the lower wages, poor families sent more of their children to work.

The authors do not conclude that all child labor bans are useless. But their study warns policy makers about the possibility of unintended consequences.