The myths behind the push to resurrect child laborRoundup
tags: political history, labor, children, labor history
Oenone Kubie is a Research and Teaching Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford, and a Visiting Research Fellow at Texas Tech University.
More than a century after public policies dramatically reduced child labor in the United States, the topic has burst back into the headlines in an unlikely manner: President Trump’s now-withdrawn nominee for the Federal Reserve Board, Stephen Moore, came under fire for suggesting the repeal of child labor legislation. During a panel on the minimum wage at the 2016 GOP convention, Moore said: “I’m a radical on this, I’d get rid of these child labor laws. I want people starting work at 11, 12.”
As a self-described “radical,” Moore has been treated as an outlier on child labor. But that’s not the case. During his 2012 presidential campaign, former House speaker Newt Gingrich advocated for relaxing “truly stupid” child labor laws and employing children as school janitors. In 2016, the Acton Institute, a conservative nonprofit that received donations from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, called child labor “a gift our kids can handle.” Earlier this year, an Indiana Republican state senator wrote a bill to weaken child labor regulations, while the Trump administration recently moved to weaken protections of child laborers working in agriculture.
In short, there is a significant push on the right to resurrect child labor. That push is based upon two key myths that do not square with historical reality: First, that markets, not the government, wiped out child labor in the early 20th century, and second, that child labor was beneficial to children’s work ethic, education and employment prospects. The history of child labor belies these assertions — and their rise in high political circles threatens to resurrect a problem that the United States largely eradicated a century ago.
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