If you had a high school English teacher who was a 19th century British literary fanatic like I was, then you probably struggled with Charles Dickens and his classics a time or two. That means you remember a few of his best characters, like Pip and Oliver Twist, and you might even know that Dickens used many of his own life experiences to shape his novels.
For example, Dickens’ father was taken to debtor’s prison, so young Charles had to provide income to his family by working in a blacking factory and other jobs that gave him particular insight into the horrors of child working conditions in the 19th century. If you’ve read Dickens, you’ve read about those conditions.
But what you might not know is that those same horrors existed in this country, fueled by the Industrial Revolution and greed. Nineteenth century American industry used hungry children in manufacturing jobs because they were cheap and small, giving them access to dangerous jobs like cleaning machines and going where no adult could.
Puritan ideals that stressed work over idleness contributed to child labor in farming and agriculture, and throughout the first half of the 19th century, children aged 10-14 became indentured servants to learn a trade. Throughout the century, immigrant children added to the labor force, especially European immigrants working in agriculture.
By 1900, 18% of workers in this country - or 1.75 million children - were 16 or younger.
Mid 19th century reformers worked to convince the public that a primary education would lead to a better country. Minimum wage and mandatory attendance at school were also floated as a way to ease child labor. In 1902, The National Child Labor committee was at the forefront of social change. Through photos, pamphlets, mass mailings and lobbying, they tried to change the laws governing working children. Even though Congress passed federal child labor laws limiting the number of hours children could work, southern states resisted change. In a 1918 Supreme Court decision, these new labor regulations were deemed unconstitutional and a violation of existing commerce law.
Reformers sought and got a child labor constitutional amendment, passed by reformers in 1924, but it was blocked due to resistance by churches, farmers, and conservative politicians. The rallying cry was that federal government should not have power over children.
The New Deal did much to improve child labor laws, giving federal government power over the workplace. Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 set minimum wage, maximum working hours, and removed children from mining and manufacturing jobs,
The rise of automation as well as the increase in the number of years that students needed to be in schools decreased the number of children in the workplace. In 1949, congress increased the child labor law bans to include employment in communication, transportation and public utilities.
Today, a legal child labor force still exists in the farming industry, with children under 12 exposed to dangerous machinery and pesticides with no mandatory regulation.
In most cases, state laws still regulate child labor, which is why this is becoming relevant again. Armed with a lack of farming regulations, a hatred of anything federal, and a need to bolster the workforce, states are changing the laws to look more 19th century than 21st.
Stay tuned to see what the right has in mind, as they continue to cater to the rich - this time at the expense of our nation’s children.
... To be continued ...