Tag: child labor

Technological Progress Freed Children from Hard Labor

It’s summertime and across the United States, children are away from school. The custom of long breaks in the school year dates to when most Americans worked in agriculture and often needed their children’s help on the farm. Of course, most children simply didn’t attend school, instead helping with housework and grueling farm labor year-round. In 1820, for example, primary school enrollment in the United States was just over 40 percent. That percentage rapidly shot upward in the coming decades, reaching 100 percent by 1870. But even then, many children didn’t make it past elementary school. In 1870, U.S. mean years of schooling stood at just 4.28. That number has risen steadily ever since. What changed? Technology, for one thing.

In his book Enlightenment Now, Harvard University professor Steven Pinker recounts how technology helped get boys off the farm and into the classroom. He quotes a tractor advertisement from 1921:

“By investing in a Case Tractor and Ground Detour Plow and Harrow outfit now, your boy can get his schooling without interruption, and the Spring work will not suffer by his absence. Keep the boy in school—and let a Case Kerosene Tractor take his place in the field. You’ll never regret either investment.”

As more farms adopted efficiency-enhancing agricultural devices like kerosene tractors, more boys attended school instead of working the fields. For girls, the huge time savings brought on by labor-saving household devices played a similar role. As running water, electricity, washing machines, and other modern conveniences spread, time spent on housework plummeted. Pinker’s book also contains a telling chart documenting the change.

The Nobel Peace Prize and Child Labor

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Indian activist Kailash Satyarthi is bound to attract public attention to the problem of child labor. In 1980, Satyarthi founded the Bachpan Bachao Andolan, or “Save the Childhood Movement,” focused on fighting child labor and human trafficking, as well as bonded labor.

Child labor is widespread in developing countries, concentrating often in the agricultural sector where working conditions are particularly dire. Because of the gravity of the problem, it is necessary to be extremely careful in devising solutions. As is often the case, the fix to child labor that most people would think of instinctively—namely, to ban it—could do more harm than good. As another Nobel laureate, Paul Krugman, wrote in a New York Times opinion piece in 2001,

In 1993, child workers in Bangladesh were found to be producing clothing for Wal-Mart, and Senator Tom Harkin proposed legislation banning imports from countries employing underage workers. The direct result was that Bangladeshi textile factories stopped employing children. But did the children go back to school? Did they return to happy homes? Not according to Oxfam, which found that the displaced child workers ended up in even worse jobs, or on the streets—and that a significant number were forced into prostitution.

There are no quick and easy answers to the problem of child labor, especially in poor countries where educational opportunities are limited and where bans on child labor simply displace children into less desirable, illegal, and more dangerous occupations. To end child labor, the currently underdeveloped countries must create economic opportunities that would reduce or eliminate the reliance of many, particularly poorer, families on income from the work of their children. In a recent Cato Economic Development Bulletin, the economist Benjamin Powell argues that