Sunday, May 1, 2011

Child Labor

One of the things about being under employed and over extended is that I spend way too much of my time, at home, remote in hand, taking a whirl around the world of television. And while I've become addicted to Burn Notice, Fringe, Castle and the many Stargate franchises, I do, on occasion make a side trip to PBS. So there I was, an afternoon too windy to ride the bike, when I stumbled upon a panel show about current events from a woman's point of view. I didn't catch the name of the show and I didn't recognize any of the participants, but I was fascinated by their subject; the movement to roll back child labor laws.

Like all modern shows, far too determined to be fair and balanced, (Not like Fox.) the panelists were a cross section of liberals and conservatives. The liberals were very concerned, in a civilized and thoughtful way, a sure fire recipe for defeat, that children would have to work late on school nights and fall behind in their studies. The cons, on the other hand, preached the value of hard work. Apparently they all had very Dickensian childhoods since to a person, they bragged about their long hours of teen-aged labor and how it made them self sufficient adults in no need of any sort of government aide. (And yes, I do know that that is a fantasy.)

What shocked me though, was the one very, very big point that both sides missed. If the age at which children can work is lowered, if the amount of hours they are allowed to work is increased, and if states are allowed to pass sub-minimum wages for workers under 18, why should employers hire adults? Don't think it would happen? Many years ago, before I committed the unthinkable academic crime of bouncing one too many tuition checks, I was, for awhile, a history major with an interest in American labor movements. During the progressive era, when child labor first became a political issue, children as important, or even primary, bread winners was not uncommon. Forced into labor at a young age to help support families, children had to drop out of school, and the fact that they made less money than adults, made them attractive to employers. Large numbers of child workers created labor surpluses, which lowered wages even more, which increased the need for more children to get jobs at younger and younger ages to help support ever impoverished families. The race to the bottom, (I do wish I had coined that phrase!) isn't new. It's as old as unregulated, cut throat capitalism.

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