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Child Labor Laws

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CHILD LABOR LAWS One aid to keeping children in school is to keep them out of the factories and shops and mines and mills by the uncompromising hand of law, state and federal. Another is to make school so attrac tive that nothing else can compete with it in in terest. Child-labor laws cannot be enforced suc cessfully unless the compulsory education laws harmonize with them, and unless there are schools for all the children involved, and unless the chil dren want to attend them, or at least their parents want them to do so.

There are good reasons why children should not go to work. They have been stated so frequently and so well and in so many ways in the last ten years, since the National Child Labor Committee was organized, that it almost seems necessary to apologize for referring to them. We need not, at any rate, try to improve on statements already made. A hundred and thirty years ago an Eng lish physician,* reporting on an epidemic among the factory children in Manchester, called atten tion to the physical injury done to young persons through confinement and long-continued labor in the cotton mills, asserting that "the active recrea tions of childhood and youth are necessary to the growth, the vigour, and the right conformation of Quoted in Hutchins and Harrison: History of Factory Legislation.

the human body"; and he could not refrain from suggesting, though apparently he felt that it was a little outside his own special territory, "this further important consideration, that the rising generation should not be debarred from all opportunities of instruction at the only season of life in which they can be properly improved." A few years later, summarizing in another connection the dangers of factory work, he refers again to the need of active exercise in youth "to invigorate the system and to fit our species for the employments and for the duties of manhood," and to the importance of not debarring children from all opportunities of educa tion, and adds: "The untimely labour of the night, and the protracted labour of the day, with respect to children, not only tends to diminish future ex pectations as to the general sum of life and indus try, by impairing the strength and destroying the vital stamina of the rising generation, but it too often gives encouragement to idleness, extrava gance, and profligacy in the parents, who, contrary to the order of nature, subsist by the oppression of their offspring." This last point was made later on by a magistrate testifying before Sir Robert Peel's parliamentary committee in 1816: " If parents were thrown more upon themselves and did not draw a profit from children in their very early years, they might not waste so much of their own time, they would work harder, and probably obtain better wages for better work." Another witness at the same hearing called attention to the low wages of adult workers as an argument against child labor.

These arguments, to be sure, were applied chiefly to children under ten, whose right to childhood is happily no longer questioned in America except in isolated instances. We all agree with Robert Owen now that it is "not necessary for children (i. e., not necessary for their good) to be employed under ten years of age in any regular work"; that the "danger of their acquiring vicious habits for want of regular occupation" is negligible, and that, on the contrary, their "habits" are apt to be "good in proportion to the extent of their education."

Gradually—much too gradually—we have been extending the minimum length of childhood to twelve years, to fourteen years, and now are trying to push it up to sixteen. We have learned more definitely why it should be extended. The bony structure of the body is still plastic and yielding. Important physiological functions are in process of establishment. A large amount of evidence has been accumulated to show the high cost of the piti ful wages that can be earned in these years: the cost in disease, in accidents, in crime, in inefficient maturity, in demoralized, topsy-turvy relations of parents and children. Boys and girls who work in cotton-mills have about twice as high a death-rate as other boys and girls. Machinery bites off chil dren's fingers when they are inattentive, as chil dren sometimes are, leaving them "no good for work any more." Children who work are apt to be undersized and anemic. They are found in the juvenile courts out of all proportion to their num bers, are more inclined to the serious offenses, and very much more apt to become habitual delinquents, so that, inasmuch as the working and the non working juvenile delinquents come from "the same general level of well-being," it "seems rather dif ficult," as the Bureau of Labor conservatively puts it, "to escape the conclusion that being at work has something to do with their going wrong." Chil dren who go to work at fourteen are earning less at eighteen than those who begin two years later, and there is reason to believe that their wages and the steadiness of their employment compare even more unfavorably at thirty and forty, when they have children of their own. All this new knowledge has had its effect. We do not like to think of children working while grown people are idle, even if they are not in the same family. Miss Cleghorn's re cent quatrain in the New York Tribune makes us uncomfortable: The golf-links lie so near the mill That almost every day The laboring children can look out And watch the men at play.

And yet, in actual practice, in the realization of our standards, we have not yet attained the very * Woman and Child Wage-earners, vol. viii, Sixty-first Congress, Senate Document 645.

reasonable ideal proposed by Dr. Roger S. Tracy a full generation ago:* I think, therefore, that eventually the laws will be so framed as to either prevent the em ployment of children in factories before the age of puberty, or render their employment under that age liable to irregular interruptions, and therefore a well-recognized commercial risk. The age at which they may first be employed will either be fixed arbitrarily at fourteen or fifteen or will be left to the judg ment of a medical inspector. Between four teen and twenty the youth is still immature, although capable of considerable endurance, and he or she should not be allowed to work more than eight hours a day at the most. After this age the hours and methods of labor may safely be left to be determined by the law of competition.