Child labor, or the use of children as workers, servants and apprentices, has been practiced throughout most of human history, but reached its zenith during the Industrial Revolution. Miserable working conditions including crowded and unclean factories, a lack of safety codes and long hours were the norm. Children could be paid less and were less likely to organize into unions. Working children were typically unable to attend school, creating a cycle of poverty that was difficult to break. Nineteenth century reformers and labor organizers sought to restrict child labor and improve working conditions to uplift the masses, but it took the Great Depression—a time when Americans were desperate for employment—to shake long-held practices of child labor in the United States.
Child Labor in the United States
The Puritan work ethic of the 13 colonies and their founders valued hard work over idleness, and this ethos applied to children as well. Through the first half of the 1800s, child labor was an essential part of the agricultural and handicraft economy of the United States. Children worked on family farms and as indentured servants for others. To learn a trade, boys often began their apprenticeships between the ages of ten and fourteen.
The Industrial Revolution saw the rise of factories and mines in need of workers. Children were ideal employees because they could be paid less, were often of smaller size so could attend to tasks in tight spaces and were less likely to organize and strike against their pitiable working conditions.
Before the Civil War, women and children played a critical role in American manufacturing, though it was still a relatively small part of the economy. Advances in manufacturing techniques after the war increased the number of jobs—and therefore increased the number of child laborers.
Immigration and Child Labor
Immigration to the United States coincidentally peaked during the Industrial Revolution and led to a new source of labor—and child labor. When the Irish Potato Famine struck in the 1840s, Irish immigrants moved to fill lower-level factory jobs.
In the 1880s, groups from southern and eastern Europe arrived, provided a new pool of child workers. The trend continues today, as many immigrant children work in agriculture, which is exempt from certain labor laws.
National Child Labor Committee
Educational reformers of the mid-nineteenth century attempted to convince the public that a primary school education was a necessity if the nation were to advance as a whole. Several states established a minimum wage for labor and requirements for school attendance—though many of these laws were full of loopholes that were readily exploited by employers hungry for cheap labor.
Beginning in 1900, efforts to regulate or eliminate child labor became central to social reform in the United States. The National Child Labor Committee, organized in 1904, and state child labor committees led the charge.
These organizations employed flexible methods in the face of slow progress. They pioneered tactics like investigations by experts; the use of photographs of child laborers to spark outrage at the poor conditions of children at work, and persuasive lobbying efforts. They used written pamphlets, leaflets and mass mailings to reach the public.
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From 1902 to 1915, child labor committees emphasized reform through state legislatures. Many laws restricting child labor were passed as part of the Progressive Era reform movement. But many Southern states resisted, leading to the decision to work for a federal child labor law. While Congress passed such laws in 1916 and 1918, the Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional.
The supporters of child labor laws sought a constitutional amendment authorizing federal child labor legislation and it passed in 1924, though states were not keen to ratify it; the conservative political climate of the 1920s, together with opposition from farm and church organizations fearing increased federal power over children, acted as roadblocks.
Depression-Era Child Labor
The Great Depression left thousands of Americans without jobs and led to sweeping reforms under the New Deal programs of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. These focused on increasing federal oversight of the workplace and giving out-of-work adults jobs—thereby creating a powerful motive to remove children from the workforce.
Almost all of the codes developed under the National Industrial Recovery Act served to reduce child labor. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 set a national minimum wage for the first time, a maximum number of hour for workers in interstate commerce—and placed limitations on child labor. In effect, the employment of children under sixteen years of age was prohibited in manufacturing and mining.
Automatization and Education
Changing attitudes toward work and social reform weren’t the only factors reducing child labor; the invention of improved machinery that mechanized many of the repetitive tasks previously given to children led to a decrease of children in the workforce. Semiskilled adults took their place for more complex tasks.
Education underwent reforms, too. Many states increasing the number of years of schooling required to hold certain jobs, lengthened the school year and began to more strictly enforce truancy laws. In 1949, Congress amended the child labor law to include businesses not covered in 1938 like transportation, communications and public utilities.
Does Child Labor Exist Today?
Although child labor has been significantly stalled in the United States, it lingers in certain areas of the economy like agriculture, where migrant workers are more difficult to regulate. Since 1938, federal laws have excluded child farm workers from labor protections provided to other working children. For example, children 12 and younger can legally work in farm fields, despite the risks posed by exposure to pesticides and farm machinery.
Employers in the garment industry have turned to the children of illegal immigrants in an effort to compete with imports from low-wage nations. Despite laws limiting the number of hours of work for children and teens still attending school, the increasing cost of education means many are working longer hours to make ends meet. State-by-state enforcement of child labor laws varies to this day.