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What’s Wrong With Child Labor?

It’s about the Children

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard leftists say something about children living below the poverty line or how the poorest people in America are children. Of course they are, they don’t have jobs.

The below two stories are about child labor in China and North Korea. Child labor isn’t something we worry too much about here in the United States. When the issue is in the news the story takes place in a foreign country. I think the reason for that isn’t the strict laws we have against child labor though. I think it’s one simple fact: children in America don’t have to work anymore.


There are poor Americans. If you are a single person making $11,770, 2 people making $15,930, 3 people making $20,090, or a family of 4 living on an income of $24,250 you are considered below the poverty level in America.

In China about 500 million people live on $693.50 a year. North Korea is actually about twice that with a whopping $1800 annually. Try to set aside the fact these are communist countries for a moment and focus just on the concept of poverty as a relation to child labor.

Life on the Farm

In America’s past, before child labor laws, the children of farmers worked those farms. In fact child labor laws were specifically designed to allow farm work for youngsters. The Department of Labor lists the following criteria:

  • 14 – 15 year olds can work in agriculture, on any farm, during hours when school is not in session if the job is  not a hazardous one.
  • 12 or 13 year olds  can work in agriculture on a farm if a parent has given written permission or that parent works the same farm.Same hours and conditions as above.
  • Under 12 can work in agriculture on a farm only if the farm is not required to pay the Federal minimum wage. That wold be small farms.

So farm kids can still do quite a bit of work, even the very little ones. Hours are limited of course but mostly to the time of day as a means to allow them to go to school, not as a means to really limit hours in the field. Children working on the farm was a necessity and a motivation for having a large family. A child was a hand.

Life in the Store

Often those coming to the United States would open stores and live above them. Butcher shops, tailors, grocery stores, and bakeries. Often they would live above them. The family would take turns, children too, going down to the store to tend to customers. They would learn the trade, learn the books, get to know the ins and outs of it all. They might start with a broom in their hand and then move up to stocking the shelves, tending the till, making orders, cutting the meat, then eventually owning the store.

I bet most of you have heard of Buddy Valastro. His father ran a bakery. Buddy learned the trade at his father’s hand. He became a master baker. His skill decorating cakes became legendary. The family business, Carlo’s Bakery is still in operation and Buddy has become the star of Cake Boss and is known the world over.

Stories like this are frequent.

Life in the Factory

Something happened along the way, the Industrial Revolution. Children went to work, not on the farm or in the family store, but in the factory and the factory was a terrible place to work. Not just for kids, but for adults too. Not all though, some had favorable working conditions. Certainly not all. It was those not all that brought glaring attention to the problem of child labor and the terrible hours and conditions. They did dangerous jobs for long hours and not much pay. The families they came from were poor and even a little money helped. A large family could send out all their kids and collectively they could make ends meet.

However, due to conditions state and federal governments stepped in and passed laws. Some of these laws were found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. An amendment was created but not passed by the states. People needed their children to work. Not only was this something they believed in but it was something they needed to run their businesses and farms. Of course for those parents without business or farm they needed their kids to go out in the world and contribute to the family’s needs.

But, the conditions in the factories were such that child labor had few fans. Not only in the United States but in other western countries as well. Finally, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in in 1938. It set the minimum age of 16 for work during school hours. It also allowed for 14 year olds to work in certain jobs after school. Perhaps most importantly it outlawed anyone under 18 from doing dangerous jobs.

Life in the Poor House

Regardless of the hours and conditions associated with factory work work itself was good for children. Not horrible factory work, but work. I submit that outlawing younger children from working on a regular basis drastically changed children on America. Many will argue that this is a good thing. That children should be allowed to be children, to play, and just be free from the cares of the world. I can see the appeal of that. But from my own experience that’s not what’s best for a child.

When I was young, I worked. Looking back I don’t know if I was one of those exceptions built into the law or if the law was ignored but I had my first actual job at the age of 12 and before that I did work in the neighborhood for money. Lawns, weeds, painting, picking up trash, washing cars, whatever I could get. At 12 I went to work at a gas station on the corner. I pumped gas, changed oil, fixed tires, and at 12 was trusted to take cash from customers. Being poor, wasn’t so bad. I didn’t know we were poor. That’s only something I realized when I got older. I’m infinitely grateful for the work I performed as a child and the lessons it taught me.

We have created an environment in America where being a kid means not having any responsibility or expectations put on them. The lessons of work are not being taught. More than that certain kinds of work are seen as being beneath them. Being poor is seen as being something someone else has to fix for you, on your behalf, because the only possible reason you are poor is because you aren’t a capable enough human being to be anything else. There is  honor in labor and happiness does exist in the poor house.

Life With Respect

One of my favorite quotes is from Martin Luther King about work, or better said, about person pride and how it relates to work.

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

Self respect means doing well where ever you are. It means not thinking of things like “your station in life”. No man is better than another because of the work he does but rather by how he does the work he does. Improving your condition isn’t the same as improving you. Worrying about your station in life doesn’t make you better or worse than anyone else or even than your current self. Some people look at a man who is a lawyer, for example, and stand in awe. “Oh, he’s a lawyer you know!” to which I reply, “Yes. I know” while inwardly thinking that I’ve known too many lawyers to be impressed by that alone. The point is that a job, an education, money, don’t make the man. What makes the man is something inside.

I personally feel that something is elevated by struggle and hard work. Clearly not the kind of struggle that little ones went through in turn of the century factories and coal mines. There must be a middle ground between the near slavery of the old mill and the do nothing children of today. Parents to who teach their children a good work ethic, give their children clear expectations, and assign them responsibilities, are doing honor to their children and to their stewardship as parents. I fear they are not the majority.


Grafting in the blazing sun, Kim Jong-un ’s child slaves load heavy rocks into sacks as others mend railway tracks with hammers.Taken out of lessons and forced to carry out back-breaking work, they toil for up to 10 hours a day.

Source: Child chain gangs of North Korea exposed, as kids as young as five forced to repair railways – Mirror Online

An investigation carried out by undercover reporters have revealed the shocking working conditions at clothing factories in Changshu, a modern city in eastern China.

Source: Shocking video shows underage young worker working 19 hours a day at Chinese sweatshops | Daily Mail Online

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