Friday, May 27, 2005

Are Child Labor Laws Still Needed?

Periodically I include a question on an assignment or test that asks the student to state an opinion on some economic issue and back it up with facts. I don't care which side of the issue they take so long as they defend their position with facts.

For one of my classes last semester I followed a question about the Factory Acts passed by the British Parliament in the mid-19th century with this question:

In the nineteenth century the U.S. passed laws designed to protect women and children in the workplace by placing numerous restrictions on the types of work they could engage in, hours, etc. Like the Factory Acts in England the real motivation behind these laws was to increase the wages of men (on whom there were no work restrictions) by reducing the overall supply of labor. A century later the Woman's Movement in the U.S. succeeded in getting the laws restricting female labor repealed. But laws regulating child labor are still in effect. In your opinion, are the child labor laws necessary or could they be abolished as well? Why or Why not?

The answers I got were rather surprising.

This blunt statement was typical:

... I do not think that child labor should even be taking place at all, I think it is cruel and inhumanitary. If the Factory Acts decrease the labor of children, then I say that we should keep the Act for children.

A theme in almost all of the answers was the need for children to get an education and, in the minds of my students, education and child labor appear to be mutually exclusive in that if we allow children to work they won' be able to go to school.

... Plus a child should be getting a good education to develop skills needed to go out and be successful in a good job field.

... Children are our country's future, and getting the best education possible is the only thing they should be doing.

... If we didn't have these laws, young kids would be working,missing out on a decent education.

... Children should be allowed to go to school without the pressure to start working.

Safety was another major concern. I never realized that there was such a high demand for workers in dangerous jobs and that parents were so eager to capitalize on this by having their children work in these areas:

... If laws weren't in effect, children would work long hours, and might even be working around hazardous materials not suitable to protect child users.

... Lastly, it could be dangerous to child's health if he works strenuous hours, which could stunt growth or be dangerous to the child's health.

... A child is unable to rationalize the danger and will likely be taken advantage of.

And where are the parents in this?

... It also prevents families from taking advantage of their children by making them work for parents' income.

... With out these laws in effect parents would let their children be taken advantage of.

There was also some refreshingly honest, if somewhat reactionary, reasons which show that the desire of 19th century male workers to raise their wages by reducing the supply of labor through laws prohibiting child labor is alive and well among 21st century male and female students.

... By allowing younger children to work, there would be more demand for jobs, which would drive down the wages for the other general workers.

... Also, if children are part of the work force it would eliminate jobs for adults that need work.

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