Discover more from Backbencher
Child Labor Is Back
New Labor Department data show there's an ever-growing epidemic of child-labor violations. You haven't heard about it because Biden's political opposition is all for it.
During the period between 1890 and 1910, 18 percent of all children aged 10 to 15 were in the labor force. “They sold newspapers, shined shoes, and carried messages,” according to a 2017 report by Michael Schuman for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Cash boys” and “cash girls” carried money to department store inspectors. Children as young as 14 worked in mines as “breaker boys,” perched atop benches alongside conveyer belts, where they separated coal from slate and inhaled dust clouds so thick that they couldn’t be seen. Children as young as 12 worked in cotton mills because adults’ hands moved too slowly. In the midwest, glassworks recruited young boys from orphanages because their small hands were ideal for cleaning bottles. On the Lower East Side of New York, children as young as 7 sewed garments in sweatshops, and in rural areas, children worked on farms, in both instances unpaid.
The system, Schuman explains, was made possible by the legal principle, derived from English common law, that a child was the property of his father. When a child was killed in the workplace, courts worked out damages paid to the parents based solely on the child’s monetary value as a minor, “less the expense of his maintenance,” ignoring whatever wages or value as a human being that child might possess after his 21st birthday. It was the same calculus you would use to compensate a farmer for the wrongful death of his mule, or, before the Civil War, to compensate a plantation owner for the wrongful death of his slave.
If these anecdotes stir within you a strong sense of nostalgia for a simpler time, consider voting Republican in the next election. There’s an ever-worsening epidemic of child labor violations afoot in this country for which President Joe Biden is not being held accountable because Republicans are too busy, in state legislatures and in Congress, trying to dismantle existing child-labor laws that clearly aren’t enforced effectively enough. That’s the subject of my latest New Republic piece. You can read it here.
Bonus link: David Weil, who ran the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Administration under President Barack Obama (and whom the Senate refused to confirm for the same position under Biden), was interviewed last night on this topic by Boston’s NPR affiliate. You can listen to that here.
Thanks for reading Backbencher! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.