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Child Labor is Back; History Says Don't be Surprised

Thought by many to be a relic of a bygone era, child labor catapulted back into the national headlines recently with several high-profile stories. First, a Labor Department investigation found more than 100 children between the ages of 13 and 17 illegally employed in meatpacking plants across the Midwest on overnight shifts, cleaning saws and other dangerous equipment with caustic chemicals. Next, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed into law the Youth Hiring Act, effectively rolling back key child labor protections in the state.

These are not isolated events. A March 2023 report by the Economic Policy Institute identified over 600 active Labor Department investigations into violations of child labor laws — described in some cases as “systemic” — against a backdrop of an over 283 percent increase in child labor employment between 2015 and 2022. Arkansas is just one of 10 states where bills have been enacted or introduced to lift a variety of restrictions on children’s employment, often at ages and in jobs long considered hazardous to their health and development, undercutting protections that have been in place at the federal level since Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938.

The push by state legislatures to unwind child labor protections harks back to child labor debates in the United States over a century ago. Deploying a rationale strikingly similar to those of today’s corporate lobbyists and state officials, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries industrializing states across the South rescinded and stymied meaningful child labor laws in the name of economic progress.

After the Civil War, the United States underwent an unprecedented period of industrial expansion. In the ensuing decades, ever-increasing numbers of children throughout the country worked in textile factories, coal mines, meatpacking plants and food canneries, as well as in fields picking produce, in city tenements manufacturing piece-goods and on urban streets as peddlers, newsboys and messengers. The number of 10- to 14-year-olds employed in industrial jobs increased more than threefold between 1870 and 1900, from just over 350,000 to nearly 1.1 million.

These developments spurred organized labor and Progressive reformers across the industrial North to work aggressively for the passage of child labor protections. Unions advanced economic arguments about the depressive effect of child labor on adult workers’ wage rates, while reformers trained their attention to moralistic arguments — often positioned in racist and nativist terms — about working children who were being exploited in equal turns by employers and greedy parents. The result was that through the turn of the 20th century a variety of age, hours and compulsory education laws were put in place in states from New England to the Midwest.

Read entire article at Made By History at the Washington Post