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America Has Been Having the Same Debate About Child Labor for 100 Years

A century ago, debates about the failed Child Labor Amendment turned on larger issues about work, childhood, and the role of government.

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.