100 Years On, We're Having the Same Debate About Child Labor

Spindle boys in Georgia cotton mill. Photo by Lewis Hine. Undated. Credit - Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Since 2021, many states have been considering or have passed legislation to weaken child labor laws, while a smaller number have considered or have been strengthening and updating the laws on their books. The legislative debates come amid reporting about the dangers and even deadly conditions that many children—particularly immigrants in undocumented families—face in their workplaces.

Calls for forceful labor protections are rooted in arguments about the government’s responsibility to protect vulnerable young people from dangers and to limit their work hours and exposures on the job. Calls to roll back labor laws focus on the economic and career-education benefits for young people whose hours, opportunities, and incomes would be enhanced by the lifting of restrictions.

So, which is it? Do child workers need more protection, or less?

Ironically, this debate is heating up as we approach the June 2024 centennial of the passage of the failed Child Labor Amendment. The arguments voiced in the halls of Congress and in state legislatures a century ago are the ones being shouted across the aisles today. The subject at hand may be existing state laws, but the arguments turn on larger issues of states’ rights versus federalism, the role of paid labor in young people’s lives, classroom vs. vocational education, the economy, and parental authority versus governmental power.

Read More: Over 100 Kids Were Illegally Employed in Dangerous Meat-Packing Plant Jobs

Efforts to protect child workers started in the early 20th century, with exposés of youngsters laboring in mines, factories, and canneries and performing long hours of field labor. Progressive advocates, led by the National Child Labor Committee, pushed Congress to enact two successive federal child labor laws.

The Keating-Owen Act of 1916 limited children’s work hours and forbade interstate sale of goods produced by child labor. The Revenue Act of 1919 (sometimes called the Child Labor Tax Law) imposed a 10% tax on the net profit of companies that employed children in certain industries such as mining and manufacturing. An activist, pro-business U.S. Supreme Court overturned both laws.

Frustrated opponents of child labor then moved to amend the U.S. Constitution, seeing it is at the only way to remove children from dangerous and sometimes deadly workplaces and to ensure they received an education. In 1924, Grace Abbott, Chief of the U.S. Children’s Bureau, an agency within the Department of Labor, described the Child Labor Amendment as a way to protect children from “premature employment, excessive hours, and hazardous occupations.”

Senators and Congresspeople heard from a variety of professional groups supporting or opposing the proposed Amendment. Opponents argued that the Amendment constituted a massive attack on states’ rights and, ultimately, U.S. democracy. Business groups, led by the National Association of Manufacturers, deemed it an assault on the free market.

In defending the status quo, opponents pointed out that nearly all states already had child labor laws on the books and claimed sufficient protections were in place. Furthermore, they argued most child workers were engaged in agricultural work, helping out on family farms to sustain their households. Moreover, the 1920 census, opponents observed, showed a decline in child labor from a decade earlier, suggesting that the problem was resolving without the need for legislative action.

Amendment supporters responded that the census figures did not account for an overall decline in the labor force due to a recent industrial depression, nor did their figures acknowledge the effects of the previous short-lived 1919 Revenue Act, had still been on the books during the census. The data offered by Amendment opponents, they argued, did not reflect the actual situation.

One in 12 children between the ages of 10 and 16 remained in the labor force and despite the overall decline in their numbers, they continued to labor in textile mills, iron and steel mills, lumber mills, and coal mines. In these workplaces their health was compromised, they experienced accidents, and some died on the job.

Supporters of the Amendment also argued that hard labor and a lack of schooling imperiled not just child workers, but the nation. They pointed to the poor health and high illiteracy rates found among World War I recruits and argued that the nation’s military might and future economic prowess would be at risk if children grew up without strong minds and bodies.

Then, as now, debates about child labor laws elicited vastly different ideas about what work did for and to children.

Amendment opponents claimed giving work to children prevented them from becoming shiftless adults when they grew up, further noting that many families depended on their children’s wages. In highlighting the benefits of work, they foreshadowed current assertions about the value of inculcating a work ethic in young people and steering them away from screen time and criminal mischief. According to a petition from the Woman Patriot Publishing Company, President Calvin Coolidge’s 14-year-old son had done light work for wages during a vacation, reaping the benefits of healthy outdoor work. (President Coolidge, nonetheless, supported the Amendment.)

Read More: The Forgotten History of the Child Labor Amendment

Some opposed the Amendment on economic grounds. Congressman Edward William Pou of North Carolina argued that, if passed, the Amendment would prevent Black children from picking cotton and deworming tobacco, highlighting the industry’s dependence on low-cost labor. It was a pointed reminder of how race and region shaped the nation’s workforce. As Abbott reported, other than Rhode Island, the Southern states had the largest proportion of young laborers. Unsurprisingly, the American Federation of Labor supported the Amendment, viewing low-wage child labor as a threat to the employment of unionized and adult workers.

The simple language of the Amendment contrasted with the heated rhetoric of the congressional debate. It read, simply, “The Congress shall have the power to limit, regulate, and prohibit the labor of persons under eighteen years of age,” and said states could pass laws stricter than ones that might be enacted by Congress. Notably, the Amendment said nothing about what measures might be passed if states failed to enact adequate protections.

Amendment opponents seized on the absence of specifics to claim it threatened far-reaching consequences for families. They imagined federal agents preventing mothers from requesting their daughters’ help in the kitchen and stopping fathers from asking their sons’ for assistance on the family farm. Congressman Fritz G. Lanham told his fellow Representatives to envision the arrival of a federal office at a home where he would be housed and fed and, in the evening, would read verses to the assembled household members, not from the Bible, but from some government volume.

The reference to government texts replacing the Bible was, undoubtedly, a way of reinforcing the idea that, as some argued, the Amendment was a Bolshevik scheme. In the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution and the Red Scare that followed, opponents saw the proposed Amendment as leading Americans down a slippery slope to communist dictatorship. The Woman Patriot Publishing Company labeled the Amendment the “spearhead of the Communist campaign in the United States.” In their view, parental authority would be replaced by a centralized, communist-run government.

Claims about a federal takeover of parental authority appeared frequently in letters to editors of local papers and in public addresses as states debated ratification. Columbia University President D. Nicholas Murray Butler, speaking to the Sentinels of the Republic, a states’ rights group, warned that the Amendment would make possible the “substitution of Congressional control of childhood and youth for the natural relationship of parent and guardian.”

Despite these arguments, large majorities in both Houses of Congress passed the Amendment, which was then ratified by 28 states over the next 15 years. Nevertheless, the Amendment languished.

Federal protection of some child workers finally arrived with passage of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act as part of the New Deal. Unlike earlier legislation, it was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Act, since amended many times, removed many youngsters from hazardous workplaces and curtailed night work and long workdays, but it did permit children to continue with farm labor. Enforcement of the new law was not robust and many youngsters continued to labor without protection.

In the 100 years since the passage of the Child Labor Amendment enormous changes occurred in the U.S. economy, in society, and in the educational and work lives of children. Yet, the debate about child worker protections continues, often echoing the previous deliberations. The failed Child Labor Amendment of 1924—it still awaits ratification—may be forgotten, but the arguments it provoked are alive and well.

Janet Golden’s latest book is Babies Made Us Modern: How Infants Brought Americans into the Twentieth Century.

Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.

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