In 1870, the federal census published, for the first time, statistics of child employment in the United States, and each succeeding census has done the same thing. During this time, there has been a growing national consciousness about the extent of child labor. There have been many discussions about its resulting evils and plans for reform, but the process of banning child labor in the United States was an extremely difficult one. It was only made possible by significant changes in public opinion and clever politicking.
Throughout history, children have worked. Cavemen enlisted the help of their children in finding supplies and hunting. Centuries later, children worked as apprentices, servants, or even regular laborers, and there was much concern over the “idle child.” People felt that working class children who weren’t fully engaged in some form of work during the day would grow up to be unproductive and useless. The Puritans took this belief one step further – they believed that work was the only way to ensure that one lived a happy and moral life.
Child labor started becoming popular when people came to the realization that children were economically valuable to their parents. Farmers eagerly anticipated the birth of new children who could labor and keep things running smoothly on their farms for their entire life, and this also became true in urban environments as the Industrial Revolution began.
The entire pitch and tone of children working changed in the 1800s, as a result of the Industrial Revolution. The cold and calculated view of children as mere units of economic input grew harsher as an entirely new style of manufacturing was introduced. Mechanized work was becoming the new normal, and it needed more people to man machines. The workforce needed for these kinds of jobs didn’t have to be especially skilled, so children were perfect for these jobs. They were easy to manipulate, so they could be given little to no money at all, could be overworked, and could be misused, all without them retaliating, or, in many cases, even realizing this.
At this point, with the thousands of new child laborers in the United States, the economy of the United States was booming, and Americans wanted to keep it that way. For this reason, the amount of child laborers in the US increased, and they were treated even more harshly than before. Some children were paid no money at all, and the ones who did get paid got meager sums of money that went to their parents. They were also at a high risk for injury due to the heavy machinery and cutting equipment that was around them. Many people weren’t even in their teens before one or more of their limbs got taken off.
In 1900, the census showed that about 1 in 6 children were engaged in some form of gainful employment, with 18 percent of them being 10 to 15 years of age. This statistic shocked Americans. Four years later, in 1904, the National Child Labor Committee, or the NCLC, was formed as a combination of several smaller anti-child labor groups. The NCLC broke into two halves, with one focusing on the northern states and the other focusing on the southern ones. This launched a huge campaign that included investigating working conditions and trying to persuade legislators to end child labor. This campaign was beneficial to the NCLC, but their greatest triumph was hiring a man named Lewis Hine. Hine was a sociologist and teacher, and his skill with a camera was extremely beneficial to the anti-child labor cause. In the early 1900s, without the Internet or any form of rapid communication, it was difficult to prove that the thousands of children who were engaged in child labor were doing so unfairly and in harsh conditions.
After all, in this time period, it was very common for children to work. It was accepted, and it was hard for people to understand that the working children were being treated unjustly. This wasn’t surprising, as the child labor happened in underground mines and behind the closed doors of factories, so people weren’t familiar with the conditions. For this reason, when Lewis Hine was finally able to take and distribute photographs of children and their working conditions, the entire country was shocked. Hine’s work influenced many people to join the anti-child labor cause. With the newfound support and popularity of the cause, the American Department of Commerce and Labor founded its Children Bureau, but legal issues were coming. From 1915 to 1917, a number of efforts were made to eliminate child labor in dangerous industries, but they were struck down for being “Constitutionally unsound.”
The first law Congress passed was the Keating-Owens Act. It prohibited the sales in interstate commerce of goods made by minors under a certain age threshold or minors who had to work for an unreasonable amount of time. However, like many other laws regulating anything relating to child labor, this act was struck down by the Supreme Court. In 1924, the NCLC attempted to pass an amendment to the United States Constitution. This amendment would allow Congress to restrict and regulate the work of minors. Technically speaking, this amendment is still pending. This is because, to pass an amendment, it must have the approval of at least three-fourths of the states in the US. The amendment wasn’t able to get support from three-fourths of the US states.
In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act, otherwise known as the FLSA, was passed and signed into law by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The act guaranteed a minimum wage, regulated overtime work, and prohibited the use of laborers in oppressive labor. While this certainly had an effect, a more cynical take on the end of child labor in the United States was that it was no longer as profitable to employ children. As time wore on, the machinery in factories became smarter and more efficient, so they required less supervision. In 1929, when the Great Depression hit, all available jobs were needed by adults. There was simply not enough room for children in the workplace.
Great strides were made to end child labor in the US, but many people could argue that these changes were made only when it was economically convenient to end child labor. Regardless, the elimination of child labor saved thousands of lives.