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The Dangerous Demand for Child Labor

An issue that seemed settled has returned, with states considering whether to loosen child labor laws. There might be some argument for revisiting them, but there’s evidence of growing abuse of existing laws.

A young textile worker in 1913.
A young textile worker in 1913. Over the course of the 19th century, the bulk of child labor jobs moved from the farm to the factory.
(Lewis Hine/National Child Labor Committee Collection/Library of Congress)
The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day
The laboring children can look out
And see the men at play.

The New England poet Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn wrote those lines in 1914. They are not especially well known today, and Sarah Cleghorn has been all but forgotten. But they were famous when they appeared, and they seem to have encapsulated a profound truth about a serious stain on the American economic system. They were part of a societywide revulsion against child labor that threatened to end the practice altogether.

A century later, there are laws in every state regulating the jobs children and teens under a certain age are allowed to perform. It has long been an effectively settled issue. So it seems rather remarkable that the subject of child labor has returned to the forefront of 21st-century state politics.

It is on display most graphically in Wisconsin, where the Republican-controlled Legislature is considering legislation that would upend the entire child labor consensus. Bills have been introduced that would significantly lengthen the hours that those under 18 could work and allow 14-year-olds to serve drinks in bars. Similar legislation was passed last year but was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. Now the GOP majority is trying again.

Opponents are as astonished as they are critical. “I can’t believe we’re having this conversation,” one Democratic lawmaker told a reporter earlier this year. They are having that conversation in many states besides Wisconsin. In the past couple of years, at least 10 states have passed or debated bills rolling back some form of child labor regulation.

Iowa enacted legislation allowing children aged 14 to 17 to work in factories. Nebraska has debated allowing eighth graders to drop out and go straight to the job market without a work permit, but with permission from parents and schools. Arkansas has considered proposals permitting 16- and 17-year-olds to work 50 hours a week when they are not in school. Ohio has discussed lengthening the acceptable workday for those 14 and 15 years old from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

WHEN CHANGES LIKE THESE HAPPEN in a comparatively short period, sometimes it is hard to tell where the momentum is coming from. That is not true in this case. The campaign to loosen child labor rules is being driven largely by the food and drink industry, which has been experiencing serious labor shortages since the pandemic and sees the recruitment of young teenagers as a way to help with the problem. The National Restaurant Association has been at the forefront of this move, along with the National Federation of Independent Business. The details tend to be similar in all the states that are considering it. New Hampshire passed a new tavern work age of 14 with lobbying support from the state Lodging and Restaurant Association and the state Liquor Commission.

But right-leaning ideological groups have also been involved, such as Americans for Prosperity, which sees extended teen work hours as a step in the direction of parents’ rights. Nearly all of the proposals aim at allowing longer hours, ending permit requirements and lowering the age threshold for employment in bars and some hazardous jobs.

All of this is troubling not only to unions, but to federal labor officials. Seema Nanda, the solicitor for the U.S. Department of Labor, has called it irresponsible. Until recently, virtually all states imposed a prohibition on tavern work for anyone under 18.

THERE IS A FAMILY RIGHTS COMPONENT to much of the child labor legislation being passed or considered. In Iowa, Shannon Lundgren, a Republican state representative who owns a tavern, has argued that lowering the alcohol service age will allow “minor family members to play a more active role” in Iowa’s family-run businesses. She points out that 14- to 16-year-olds would not be mixing drinks, just serving them, and would have to have two adult supervisors. That isn’t reassuring the critics. Some point out that in Iowa, kids aged 14 to 17 not only can work in restaurants and taverns already, but can do some jobs in mining and roofing.

Teenagers who work in bars are overwhelmingly female. A disproportionate number of them come from immigrant families. There have been numerous complaints of sexual harassment in these situations, although little hard evidence exists.

The argument is taking place in Congress as well. Republican Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho and independent Sen. Angus King of Maine have introduced legislation that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work in logging if their parents approve. “Idaho’s logging industry has long been a family trade,” Risch says, “but current law is hampering its future by preventing young men and women from working in their family’s businesses.”

On the other side, Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii has proposed legislation that would create new federal penalties and maximum fines for child labor violations. Neither appears likely to become law any time soon.

A LITTLE HISTORY SEEMS APPROPRIATE HERE. In the early days of the republic, virtually all children who worked (and nearly all of them did work) toiled in agriculture. Over the course of the 19th century, the bulk of child labor jobs moved from the farm to the factory.

This stimulated the first real effort in America to do something about children’s jobs and hours. Massachusetts passed the first law, in 1836, mandating that children older than age 5 had to be in school at least three months out of the year. But by 1900, about 1.7 million kids under 15 were still employed in American industry, many of them in the grueling and dangerous trade of glassmaking.

Broad outrage, as expressed in the Sarah Cleghorn poem, coalesced in the early decades of the 20th century. In 1916, two years after her poem became something of a national icon, Congress passed the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act, banning the sale of products from any factory, shop or cannery that employed children under the age of 14, from any mine that employed children under the age of 16, and from any facility where children under 14 worked after 7 p.m., before 6 a.m. or more than eight hours daily.

Two years later, however, the Supreme Court invalidated the law in a 5-4 decision, holding that it was an improper extension of federal power over interstate commerce. Congress went on to pass a child labor amendment to the Constitution in 1924, but it failed to win sufficient support in the states.

So it was not until 1938 that the federal government took successful action with the Fair Labor Standards Act, which revived much of the 1916 law and was accepted by the Supreme Court. That act carved out exemptions for employment by parents, newspaper delivery and child actors, and was relatively lenient toward farm work. But the number of working minors declined quickly and dramatically after the 1938 law was passed. And the issue more or less disappeared from public controversy. Until just now.

There are some semi-plausible reasons why it might make sense to revisit it at this late date. There is the labor shortage in the hospitality industry, which may not seem like a national crisis but imposes a genuine hardship on businesses that are said to employ 1 out of 10 U.S. workers. It’s also been argued that many parents allow their kids to play video games until the wee hours of the morning, so perhaps it might be better to let them acquire some work skills and bring in a little money. These are not Sarah Cleghorn’s 8-year-olds slaving away in sweatshops — they are mostly adolescents working in relatively safe jobs under close supervision.

Perhaps. But enough horror stories turn up to suggest that moving so quickly might not be a good idea. Last year, the Labor Department found that 835 private corporations were employing 3,800 underage kids and that total child labor violations had increased by 70 percent since 2017. Earlier this year, a Wisconsin-based company whose employees clean food processing plants paid a $1.5 million fine for illegally allowing 102 children to work in dangerous jobs at meatpacking facilities.

Maybe it makes sense to loosen up a bit on teenage employment. But we need to make sure we know what we are doing.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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