Child Labor Was Essential to Early Capitalism—Don't be Shocked it's Coming BackRoundup
tags: capitalism, labor history, child labor
Steve Fraser is a writer and historian whose latest book is Mongrel Firebugs and Men of Property: Capitalism and Class Conflict in American History (Verso).
An aged Native American chieftain was visiting New York City for the first time in 1906. He was curious about the city and the city was curious about him. A magazine reporter asked the chief what most surprised him in his travels around town. “Little children working,” the visitor replied.
Child labor might have shocked that outsider, but it was all too commonplace then across urban, industrial America (and on farms where it had been customary for centuries). In more recent times, however, it’s become a far rarer sight. Law and custom, most of us assume, drove it to near extinction. And our reaction to seeing it reappear might resemble that chief’s — shock, disbelief.
But we better get used to it, since child labor is making a comeback with a vengeance. A striking number of lawmakers are undertaking concerted efforts to weaken or repeal statutes that have long prevented (or at least seriously inhibited) the possibility of exploiting children.
Take a breath and consider this: the number of kids at work in the United States increased by 37 percent between 2015 and 2022. During the last two years, fourteen states have either introduced or enacted legislation rolling back regulations that governed the number of hours children can be employed, lowered the restrictions on dangerous work, and legalized subminimum wages for youths.
Iowa now allows those as young as fourteen to work in industrial laundries. At age sixteen, they can take jobs in roofing, construction, excavation, and demolition and can operate power-driven machinery. Fourteen-year-olds can now even work night shifts and once they hit fifteen can join assembly lines. All of this was, of course, prohibited not so long ago.
Legislators offer fatuous justifications for such incursions into long-settled practice. Working, they tell us, will get kids off their computers or video games or away from the TV. Or it will strip the government of the power to dictate what children can and can’t do, leaving parents in control — a claim already transformed into fantasy by efforts to strip away protective legislation and permit fourteen-year-old kids to work without formal parental permission.
In 2014, the Cato Institute, a right-wing think tank, published “A Case Against Child Labor Prohibitions,” arguing that such laws stifled opportunity for poor — and especially black — children. The Foundation for Government Accountability, a think tank funded by a range of wealthy conservative donors including the DeVos family, has spearheaded efforts to weaken child-labor laws, and Americans for Prosperity, the billionaire Koch brothers’ foundation, has joined in.
Nor are these assaults confined to red states like Iowa or the South. California, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, and New Hampshire, as well as Georgia and Ohio, have been targeted, too. Even New Jersey passed a law in the pandemic years temporarily raising the permissible work hours for sixteen- to eighteen-year-olds.