Reversals on Child Labor: Echoes of the Past Reemerge in the US

Category Business

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A movement to weaken American child labor protections is underway in multiple states and is driven by think tanks with ties to statehouses and industry leaders. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 provides guarantees for child labor protections, however some groups wish to repeal these laws with arguments that echo decades ago. Opponents of child labor argue that it endangers health, disrupt childhood development and interfere with studies.

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A movement to weaken American child labor protections at the state level began in 2022. By June 2023, Arkansas, Iowa, New Jersey and New Hampshire had enacted this kind of legislation, and lawmakers in at least another eight states had introduced similar measures.

The laws generally make it easier for kids from 14 to 17 years old to work longer and later – and in occupations that were previously off-limits for minors.

Child labor laws in the US date back to 1938, before which many states were unable to pass such laws due to a lack of a federal standard

When Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed her state’s new, more permissive child labor law on May 26, 2023, the Republican leader said the measure would "allow young adults to develop their skills in the workforce." .

As scholars of child labor, we find the arguments Reynolds and other like-minded politicians are using today to justify undoing child labor protections echo older justifications made decades ago.

The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 in the US v. Darby Lumber ruling

Many conservatives and business leaders have long argued, based on a combination of ideological and economic grounds, that federal child labor rules aren’t necessary. Some object to the government determining who can’t work. Cultural conservatives say working has moral value for young people and that parents should make decisions for their children. Many conservatives also say that teens, fewer of whom are in the workforce today than in past decades, could help fill empty jobs in tight labor markets.

At present, eight states have either enacted or are proposing wide-scale, more relaxed laws for child labor

Opponents of child labor observe that when kids under 18 work long hours or do strenuous jobs, it can disrupt childhood development, interfere with their schooling and deprive them of the sleep they need. Expanding child labor can encourage kids to drop out of school and jeopardize young people’s health through injuries and work-related illnesses.

Long-brewing battle .

Child labor protections, such as making many kinds of employment for children under 14 illegal and restricting the hours that teens under 18 can spend working, are guaranteed by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. U.S. law also does not treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. The federal government deems many occupations to be too hazardous for anyone under 18.

The Reagan administration unsuccessfully sought to relax federal child labor laws in 1982

Until that law took effect, the lack of a federal standard always obstructed progress in the states toward keeping kids in school and out of mines, factories and other sometimes hazardous workplaces.

Three years after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld it in the U.S. v. Darby Lumber ruling, which toppled a related precedent.

Challenges began during the Reagan administration .

Child labor laws limit the hours young people can work, what they can be paid, and the types of industries they can engage in

There were no significant efforts to challenge child labor laws for the next four decades. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan sought to ease federal protections to allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work longer hours in fast-food and retail establishments and to pay young workers less than the minimum wage. A coalition of Democrats, labor unions, teachers, parents and child development groups blocked the proposed changes.

Current changes to child labor rules are being led by think tanks that have close ties to statehouses and industry leaders

By the late 1980s, child labor violations were on the rise. Some industry groups tried to loosen restrictions in the 1990s, but legal changes were minimal.

A more ambitious attempt to roll back child labor laws in the early 20th century is being led by think tanks that have cultivated close ties with statehouses and industry leaders.

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