The Report on the Youth Labor Force was revised in November 2000.
This chapter looks briefly at the history of child labor in the United States, and discusses how that history influences youth employment today. It then examines the current Federal child labor provisions, provides a comparison of State child labor laws, and discusses other government programs that directly affect the employment of young workers. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the U.S. Department of Labor’s strategy for combating oppressive child labor and the effectiveness of its compliance strategy.
History of child labor in the United States
Children have worked in America, contributing to the well-being of the family unit, since the arrival of the first colonists. European settlers, bringing social values with them that equated idleness with pauperism, were quick to pass laws that actually required children to work. For example, in 1641, the court of Massachusetts Bay ordered all households to work on wild hemp for clothing, and it was expected that “children should be industriously implied (sic).”1 Adopting “poor laws” similar to the English laws, the colonies required the apprenticeship of poor children—some at ages as young as 3 years. Children worked on family farms and in family cottage industries. The institution of slavery also encompassed the labor of children born or sold into servitude. The industrial revolution ushered in the modern factory system and changed a predominately rural populace into an
urban one. Factory towns grew up dependent on a labor supply of women and children, the children working not necessarily as apprentices but as factory labor. Children were seen as a cheap and manageable source of labor. Newspaper advertisements of the day reflected the fact that factory managers preferred to hire families with several children, and widows with children were especially favored. Child labor in this country was so widespread, and so much a part of economic reality in the early part of the 19th century, that no one looked toward or expected its abolition. But as the number of factories multiplied and the child workforce grew, the social conscience began to stir—not against child labor itself, but against some features of the factory system as they affected the children. The earliest concerns were that factory children were growing up without receiving even a modest education. Long workdays and workweeks left little time for study. In 1813, Connecticut enacted a law encouraging manufacturers to provide young employees with lessons in reading, writing, and arithmetic, but the law was ineffective. It was not until 1836 that Massachusetts passed this country’s first child labor law—legislation that required children under the age of 15 employed in manufacturing to spend at least 3 months each year in school. A few States soon adopted similar laws. After the Civil War, industry expanded and became increasingly mechanized. The textile industry flourished in the South and with it, oppressive child labor. Children as young as
6 or 7 years were recruited to work 13hour days, for miniscule wages, in hot and dusty factories. Proposals to change these conditions met with stiff opposition. By the turn of the century, only a few southern States had passed laws limiting the number of hours that children could work. The early 1900s saw a growing acceptance of the concept that States should provide for the general protection of children. In 1909, the Bureau of Labor Statistics issued a landmark report on working women and children. This 19-volume report confirmed that more children were employed in the South than in New England. The report also found that, in a substantial number of cases, children’s earnings were essential to meeting their families’ needs, but that in other cases, families would not have suffered financial hardships if child labor were forbidden.2 By...