Child labor laws in the United States

Child labor laws in the United States address issues related to the employment and welfare of working children in the United States. The most sweeping federal law that restricts the employment and abuse of child workers is the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA), which came into force during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration.[1] Child labor provisions under FLSA are designed to protect the educational opportunities of youth and prohibit their employment in jobs that are detrimental to their health and safety. FLSA restricts the hours that youth under 16 years of age can work and lists hazardous occupations too dangerous for young workers to perform.

A child labor standards poster from the 1940s.

Federal lawEdit

The main law regulating child labor in the United States is the Fair Labor Standards Act. For non-agricultural jobs, children under 14 may not be employed, children between 14 and 16 may be employed in allowed occupations during limited hours, and children between 16 and 17 may be employed for unlimited hours in non-hazardous occupations.[2] A number of exceptions to these rules exist, such as for employment by parents, newspaper delivery, and child actors.[2] The regulations for agricultural employment are generally less strict.

State lawsEdit

States have varying laws covering youth employment. Each state has minimum requirements such as, earliest age a child may begin working, number of hours a child is allowed to be working during the day, number of hours a child is allowed to be worked during the week. The United States Department of Labor lists the minimum requirements for agricultural work in each state.[3] Where state law differs from federal law on child labor, the law with the more rigorous standard applies.[2]

Individual states have a wide range of restrictions on labor by minors, often requiring work permits for minors who are still enrolled in high school, limiting the times and hours that minors can work by age and imposing additional safety regulations.[4]

History of children's labor for wagesEdit

"Addie Card, 12 years. Spinner in North Pormal [i.e., Pownal] Cotton Mill. Vt." by Lewis Hine, 1912 - 1913
Children working with mules in a coal mine

Child labor began as a productive outlet for children during colonial times in America. At the age of 13, orphan children were sent into a trade or domestic work due to laws that sought to seek idle children from becoming a burden to society.[5] Increased economic tensions between England and America created the desire for an independent manufacturing sector. Women and children were employed by manufacturing while the husband could tend to the farm at home. This practice fulfilled the Jeffersonian ideal of yeoman father. As a national newsweekly magazine observed factory work was not for able bodied men rather "better done by six to twelve year old girls".[5]

As the United States industrialized, factory owners hired young workers for a variety of tasks. Especially in textile mills, children were often hired together with their parents and could be hired for only $2 a week.[6] Children had a special disposition to working in factories and mines as their small statures were useful to fixing machinery and navigating the small areas that fully grown adults could not.[7] Many families in mill towns depended on the children's labor to make enough money for necessities.[8][9] In mining towns, many parents often helped their children thwart child laws that did exist since miners were paid per carload of coal and any additional help to load coal meant an increase in pay.[6] According to the 1900 census, an estimated 1,750,178 children ages ten to fifteen were employed, constituting more than 18 percent of the industrial labor force.[10] Every decade following 1870, the number of children in the workforce increased, with the percentage not dropping until after the Great War.[10] From 1910 to 1920, more than 60 percent of child workers in the United States were employed in agriculture.[11] Every boy born into a farm family was worth a thousand dollars. Children as young as three were sometimes found hurling berries.[5] Some children preferred work over school since earning wages earned them respect in their homes, they were punished in the form of corporal punishment at school, and did not like to read or write instead of working.[11]

Employment certificatesEdit

The federal legal system had limited powers to pass child labor laws primarily due to the constitution that gave parents the right to raise their children as they pleased.[5] It was a matter for the states to deal with and created their own child labor laws including age and schooling requirements. For regular, full-time work, "age and schooling certificates", "work permits", or "employment certificates" were issued in States to children, usually 14 or 15, before they may go to work in certain occupations, generally manufacturing, and mercantile.[12] No certifications were required for agriculture, street trades, and work in private households.[13]

Reformation of child labor lawsEdit

The start of the 20th century was the time when reform efforts became widespread.[6] The National Child Labor Committee, an organization dedicated to the abolition of all child labor, was formed in 1904. By publishing information on the lives and working conditions of young workers, it helped to mobilize popular support for state-level child labor laws. These laws were often paired with compulsory education laws which were designed to curtail child labor to an extent, keep children in school, and out of the paid labor market until a specified age (usually 12, 14, or 16 years.)[6] In 1906 Republican Senator Albert J. Beveridge introduced the first child labor bill at the national level that brought heightened attention to the topic. The bill was later turned down by President Theodore Roosevelt.[6]

In 1916, under pressure from the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) and the National Consumers League, the United States Congress passed the Keating–Owen Act, outlawing interstate commerce involving goods produced by employees under the ages of 14, 15 or 16, depending on the type of work. Southern Democrats were opposed but did not filibuster the bill. President Woodrow Wilson had ignored the issue but now endorsed the bill at the last minute under pressure from party leaders who stressed how popular the idea was, especially among the emerging class of women voters. He told Democratic Congressmen they needed to pass this law and also a workman's compensation law to satisfy the national progressive movement and to win the 1916 election against a reunited GOP. Child labor had officially become an issue of concern to the federal government and it was the first federal child labor law.[6] However, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law in Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918) because it regulated commerce that did not cross state lines. Congress used its taxing power by passing a 10-percent tax on businesses that used child labor, but that was struck down by the Supreme Court in Bailey v. Drexel Furniture (1923).[6] Child labor was finally ended in the 1930s.[14]

In response to these setbacks, Congress, on June 2, 1924, approved a Constitutional amendment that would authorize Congress to regulate "labor of persons under eighteen years of age", and submitted it to the states for ratification.[15] Only five states ratified the amendment in the 1920s. However, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration supported it, and another 14 states signed on in 1933 (his first year in office); 28 states in all had given their approval by 1937. An additional 10 states were needed at the time to ratify the proposed amendment.[16]

The common legal opinion on federal child labor regulation reversed in the 1930s. Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 regulating the employment of those under 16 or 18 years of age, and the Supreme Court upheld the law.[16] After this shift, the amendment has been described as "moot"[17] and effectively part of the Constitution.[18]

Agricultural child laborEdit

However, while the 1938 labor law placed limits on many forms of child labor, agricultural labor was excluded. As a result, approximately 500,000 children pick almost a quarter of the food currently produced in the United States.[19]

According to a 2010 petition by Human Rights Watch:

Hundreds of thousands of children are employed as farm workers in the United States, often working 10 or more hours a day. They are often exposed to dangerous pesticides, experience high rates of injury, and suffer fatalities at five times the rate of other working youth. Their long hours contribute to alarming drop-out rates. Government statistics show that barely half ever finish high school. According to the National Safety Council, agriculture is the second most dangerous occupation in the United States. However, current US child labor laws allow child farm workers to work longer hours, at younger ages, and under more hazardous conditions than other working youths. While children in other sectors must be 12 to be employed and cannot work more than 3 hours on a school day, in agriculture, children can work at age 12 for unlimited hours before and after school.[20][21]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ United States. Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Pub.L. 75–718 Approved June 25, 1938.
  2. ^ a b c "Child Labor Provision for Nonagricultural Occupations Under the Fair Labor Standards Act" (PDF). U.S. Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division. July 2010. Retrieved 17 April 2012.
  3. ^ "State child labor laws applicable to agricultural employment". Wage and hour division. United States Department of Labor. December 2014. Retrieved September 11, 2015.
  4. ^ Larson, Aaron (30 July 2016). "Child Labor Law". ExpertLaw. Retrieved 10 July 2017.
  5. ^ a b c d Schuman, Michael (January 2017). "History of child labor in the United States-part 1: little children working". Monthly Labor Review: 20.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Schuman, Michael (January 2017). "History of child labor in the United States—part 2: the reform movement". Monthly Labor Review: 23.
  7. ^ Crosson-Tower, Cynthia (2017). Exploring Child Welfare (7 ed.). Pearson. p. 5. ISBN 978-0-13-454792-3.
  8. ^ McHugh, Cathy L. (1960), Mill family: the labor system in the Southern cotton textile industry, 1880-1915, New York: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-504299-9, 0195042999
  9. ^ Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd (November 1989), Like a Family: the making of a Southern cotton mill world, W W Norton & Co Inc, ISBN 978-0-393-30619-4, 0393306194
  10. ^ a b Roark, James L.; Johnson, Michael P.; Furstenburg, Francois; Cline Cohen, Patricia; Hartmann, Susan M.; Stage, Sarah; Igo, Sarah E. (2020). "Chapter 19 The City and Its Workers: 1870–1900". The American Promise: A History of the United States (Kindle). Vol. Combined Volume (Value Edition, 8th ed.). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's. Kindle Locations 14409–14410. ISBN 978-1319208929. OCLC 1096495503.
  11. ^ a b Gratton, Brian; Moen, Jon (2004). "Immigration, Culture, and Child Labor in the United States, 1880-1920". The Journal of Interdisciplinary History: 355–391.
  12. ^ McGill, Nettie P (April 1921). "Trend of Child Labor in the United States, 1913 to 1920". Monthly Labor Review: 1–14.
  13. ^ "CHILD LABOR". Monthly Labor Review: 1361–1373. December 1933.
  14. ^ Arthur S. Link, Wilson: Campaigns for Progressivism and Peace, 1916-1917. Vol. 5 (1965) pp. 56–59.
  15. ^ Huckabee, David C. (September 30, 1997). "Ratification of Amendments to the U.S. Constitution" (PDF). Congressional Research Service reports. Washington D.C.: Congressional Research Service, The Library of Congress.
  16. ^ a b "Four amendments that almost made it into the constitution". Constitution Daily. Philadelphia: The National Constitution Center. March 23, 2014. Archived from the original on March 5, 2017. Retrieved March 3, 2017.
  17. ^ Vile, John R. (2003). Encyclopedia of Constitutional Amendments, Proposed Amendments, and Amending Issues, 1789-2002. ABC-CLIO. p. 63. ISBN 9781851094288.
  18. ^ Strauss, David A. (2010). The Living Constitution. Oxford University Press. pp. 125–126. ISBN 9780195377279.
  19. ^ York, Helene (Mar 26, 2012). "Do Children Harvest Your Food?".
  20. ^ "US: Child Farmworkers' Dangerous Lives". 5 May 2010.
  21. ^ "Child Farmworkers in the United States: A "Worst Form of Child Labor"". 17 November 2011.

Further readingEdit

  • Abbott, Edith. "A study of the early history of child labor in America." American Journal of Sociology 14.1 (1908): 15–37. online
  • Basu, Kaushik. "Child labor: cause, consequence, and cure, with remarks on international labor standards." Journal of Economic literature 37.3 (1999): 1083–1119. online
  • Kaufka Walts, Katherine. "Child labor trafficking in the United States: A hidden crime." Social Inclusion 5.2 (2017): 59–68.
  • Kotin, Lawrence and William F. Aikman. Legal Foundations of Compulsory Schooling (Kennikat Press 1980).
  • Landes William and Lewis C. Solomon, “Compulsory Schooling Legislation: An economic Analysis of Law and Social Change in the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of Economic History 22(1), 1972
  • Lleras-Muney, Adriana. "Were compulsory attendance and child labor laws effective? An analysis from 1915 to 1939." Journal of Law and Economics 45.2 (2002): 401–435. online
  • Moehling, Carolyn M. "State Child Labor Laws and the Decline of Child Labor," Explorations in Economic History (1999) 36, 72-106