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Understanding the History of the Child Labor Laws in America

written by: Lynn Mason • edited by: Noreen Gunnell • updated: 6/14/2013

From the beginning of it's history, America has always placed a high value on work. However, at certain times in history, children were taken advantage of and made to work in deplorable conditions, necessitating laws to protect them and ensure every child get an education.

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    Child labor laws are designed to regulate the practice of child labor. The history of child labor laws in the United States reflects the changing times and values of the nation. Today, the federal government views child labor as an educational issue and tries to ensure positive work experiences that improve rather than compete with the educational process.

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    History of Child Labor Laws

    These young boys worked as coal miners in the early 1900s.Image by Wikimedia Commons/ Magnus Manske. European settlers brought social-values with them to America. Many of these values remain today such as the value Americans place on work. The colonists equated idleness with delinquency. Children often helped out in farmwork or in their father's trade or business to help support the family.

    A 1641 Massachusetts Bay Colony law required families to provide education to their children and apprentices. This involved teaching children how to read, as well as a trade or some manner of employment. This law was intended to ensure that children all had an upbringing that prepared them to be industrious and hard-working adults.

    Families in unfortunate circumstances, who could not afford to take care of and educate their own children, would often have their children enter apprenticeships at young ages. Children of slaves were born into servitude and often did not have the same rights.

    The industrial revolution changed America from a predominately rural population to an urban one. Factories were dependent on women and children for cheap manageable labor. Families depended on the meager income of their children, however there was still growing concern about the working conditions of children.

    Children as young as 6 worked up to 13 hour days in unhealthy and dangerous conditions for minuscule wages. However, social conscience blossomed and deplorable factory conditions began to be challenged. Education of youth became an issue and in 1836, Connecticut passed a law requiring working children to attend school 3 months a year. By the late 1800's States had passed over 1600 laws limiting or forbidding child labor. Unfortunately, many of these laws were ignored, or did not apply to everyone, such as immigrants.

    Progressive Reforms and Labor Movements

    By the early 1900s there was a growing belief that the federal government should protect children. Many women joined the fight for social reform and against children working in factories. Two ardent progressive activists were Mother Jones and Florence Kelley.

    Mary Harris “Mother” Jones became the voice of children after her husband and children died of yellow fever in 1867. She was one of the strongest campaigners for the countries first labor union, The Knights of Labor, and a champion for the poor worker. In 1903 she led a group of child workers on a march to President Theodore Roosevelt’s mansion. She wanted him to ban child labor but he refused to meet with them.

    Many women joined the fight for social reform and fair treatment of children. Progressive activist Florence Kelley was a leader in the battle. She organized marches; boycotts of goods produced with child labor and pressed the federal government to outlaw child labor. By 1913, all but 9 states had passed laws setting the minimum age of 14 for factory work.

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    Fair Labor Standards Act

    Many teenagers work in fast food. Imange by morguefile/Mary R. Vogt Meaningful federal legislation was not enacted until 1938 with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FLSA provides the guidelines for child labor. It sets guidelines for age, hours, types of jobs and working conditions for young workers. The FLSA remains the primary law governing child labor.

    Federal law sets 16 as the minimum age for youth employment in non-hazardous jobs without restrictions. 14 and 15 year olds may be employed during non-school hours under certain restrictions. The FLSA was revised in 2010 to reflect changes in child labor practices. Individual states may also have their own laws with stricter restrictions. Several states set the minimum age for employment at 17.

    Not all jobs are covered by the FLSA. Non-formal jobs such as babysitting, chores, and newspaper delivery may be performed by children. Performing in the entertainment industry is also non-regulated, as well as working on farms or businesses owned by the worker’s parents.

    Child labor in the U.S. has changed drastically in the last century. Due to the relative wealth of most families they no longer have to rely on their children for support. Teenagers are now the predominant youth workers and they work primarily for their own spending money. Current child labor laws in the United States reflect the nation’s belief in the value of hard work, and the importance of educating and protecting the nation’s youth.

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    For More Information

    For more information on your state’s specific laws check out this listing of state labor department websites and click on your state.

    For more information on the FLSA and restrictions of youth employment, see the Department of Labor’s website information on youth and labor.

References

  • Nash, Gary B. American Odyssey: The United States in the Twentieth Century. Ch. 17. New York: McGraw-Hill.1977.
  • Department of Labor: http://www.dol.gov/dol/topic/youthlabor/index.htm
  • The History Place - Child Labor in America - http://www.historyplace.com/unitedstates/childlabor/about.htm

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