A Modest Proposal to Rescind Child Labor Laws





Janet Golden is Professor of History at Rutgers University. She is the author of Message in a Bottle: The Making of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (Harvard, 2006).


News that hearings began in Maine to roll back the state’s child labor laws left me excited, until I realized proponents advocated only modest changes.   A new minimum wage for high school students for their first six months on the job and loosening limits on their weekly hours are hardly revolutionary.  As we prepare to celebrate the centennial of the United States Children’ Bureau in 2012, I think it would be only fitting if we undertook an effort to fully eliminate all the reforms this federal agency helped to instigate.  Indeed, a careful reading of the Children’s Bureau’s own reports on child labor makes clear the advantages of eliminating unnecessary restrictions on industry.  Here’s one example.

In 1919 investigators from the Children’s Bureau set out to examine the seasonal labor of women and children in the Oyster and Shrimp Canning on the Gulf Coast.  Great things were happening.  With low wages, entire families had the opportunity to go to work and contribute to the household.  What a great model for us at a time when we bemoan the lack of family togetherness and worry about the lack of work ethic in the young.  Maine could really be a model if it would just eliminate all restrictions on work.  As one woman told investigators in 1919 “Once, before the child-labor law got so bad, little bits of kids, five to six years old, would get out and make more than the older ones.”  Imagine how great it would be if our five and six year olds could be doing their part and perhaps inspire their older siblings to buckle down.  And aren’t we always complaining about kids needing to exercise and lose a few pounds?  What’s better than getting up in the morning and walking to work and earning so little that you just don’t have money for junk food, or sometimes, any food?

When big government stepped in and limited the labor of children it turned ordinary decent Americans into criminals.  In the canning industry this meant sneaking their young children into the sheds.  The mother of one seven-year-old girl had to lie to agents about her daughter’s work, rather than being able to brag to them about the $5 a week the girl made despite a cut she sustained shucking oysters.  Big government turned a model mother into an offender and undermined the self-esteem of a child.  Is that any way to run a country?

Sure there were knife cuts, skin diseases from handling raw shrimp, and problems arising from standing in cold wet conditions working hours without a break, but as one physician who treated canning industry employees observed, work kept the children “out of mischief.”  And not just out of mischief, but out of school.  Many children skipped school or attended irregularly, and often, in the days before government interference, there were no laws compelling school attendance.  What a boon for the economy.  Communities saved a lot of money by providing minimal or no education and we all know this meant lower taxes.  And there were plenty of other advantages to this arrangement.

Having children work alongside mothers saved on daycare.  Kids too young to contribute monetarily to the family came to the cannery and cared for their younger siblings.  There was no need to have a babysitter when, as the mother of a six-month-old baby explained, there was a “clean cement place” or a box nearby.  Those were the days!

The state of Maine is taking a step in the right direction but it’s a baby step.  Let’s go all out:  eliminate minimum wages, eliminate minimum work ages, eliminate health, safety and hours rules, eliminate public education—it’s a formula for strong families and strong industries.  Onward to 1919!



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