From the Shadows of the Past: Tracing the History of Child Labor in America

Throughout the child labor history in America, the utilization of young workers has been a harsh reality. With the advent of industrialization, which relocated workers from farms and home workshops to urban areas and factories, children became an integral part of the American workforce.[1] We will aim to delve into the historical context of child labor in the United States, examine legislative challenges, prevailing attitudes, and the subsequent progress made. Furthermore, it highlights the global perspective of child labor and the ongoing efforts for its elimination.

Historical Context

In 1900, nearly 2 million children under the age of 16 were forced to work, predominantly in mines, farms, and factories.[2] This alarming figure highlights the extensive prevalence of child labor during that time. Fast forward to 2021, and the estimated number of children engaged in child labor in America is still more than 500,000, which represents one-quarter of the number employed three generations ago.[3] These statistics shed light on the persistence of child labor in the country.

During the 19th century, child labor was deeply entrenched in the fabric of American society. As industrialization shifted workers from farms and home workshops to urban areas and factories, children were often preferred by factory owners due to their perceived manageability, cost-effectiveness, and lower likelihood of striking. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, children were expected to “earn their keep.” [4] Most children under the age of 15 toiled up to 14 hours a day, working alongside their parents or for employers, with the exception of affluent families who had other children work on their behalf. [5] The prevailing argument in favor of child labor was that it prevented idleness and provided economic empowerment by boosting production capacity.[6]

Legislative Challenges and Public Perception

Surprisingly, effective and enforceable child labor laws were virtually non-existent in the United States until the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1938, a full 75 years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves. Even then, the FLSA only marginally addressed child labor in comparison to wage and hour laws. Previous attempts to introduce laws prohibiting child labor had either failed to gain Congressional approval or were subsequently deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.[7] The primary advocates for eliminating child labor were social activists, while business owners, parents, and even children themselves believed that earning a livelihood and acquiring trade skills were more crucial than any other alternative.[8]

During this period, social activists were at the forefront of the battle against child labor. However, their endeavors were met with resistance from business owners, parents, and even the children themselves, who believed that earning a livelihood and acquiring vocational skills held greater importance. Recruitment ads from textile mills exemplified these attitudes, highlighting the financial benefits of sending children to work rather than investing in education. They argued that working could earn a child $40 per week throughout the year, while pursuing education might only yield a future career as a teacher earning $35 per month during the school term. Such perspectives underscore the prevailing sentiments toward child labor during that era.[9]

Persistence and Progress

Despite the passage of the FLSA, child labor resurfaced during World War II. In 1944, a mere six years after the act became law, nearly 3 million children were actively employed. It was not until 1967 that regulations were established to limit the types of work children under the age of 16 could undertake. However, the introduction of mandatory education laws played a pivotal role in reducing child labor. Truancy officers were instrumental in ensuring children attended school as required, significantly curbing the number of child laborers.

Understanding Child Labor Today

To truly comprehend child labor and its existence, it is essential to recognize the historical struggles the United States underwent in its transformation into a global economic powerhouse. While child labor remains a concern, its prevalence today is predominantly limited to countries striving to transition from subsistence economies to achieve economic prosperity. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), a staggering 218 million children worldwide are still involved in labor, despite the organization’s century-long efforts toward its abolition.[10]

Taking a global perspective reveals the multifaceted nature of child labor. David Batstone of the Not for Sale Campaign, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to combating the exploitation of children, acknowledges that progress in reducing child labor has been inadequate.[11] This issue extends beyond mere social or human rights concerns; it is fundamentally an economic problem. Child labor persists due to complex factors such as poverty, lack of access to education, and economic necessity.

Child labor’s historical legacy in America serves as a reminder of the arduous journey toward its eradication. While significant progress has been made, the fight against child labor continues globally. Combating this issue necessitates a comprehensive approach that addresses the economic drivers while safeguarding the rights and welfare of vulnerable children. By fostering collective action, advocating for equitable economic opportunities, and prioritizing education, societies worldwide can strive for a future where child labor becomes a relic of the past.

Every child deserves a chance to enjoy their childhood, receive an education, and build a brighter future free from exploitation. Embracing the opportunity to make a lasting impact, GFA World’s child sponsorship program empowers individuals to sponsor a child and become a catalyst for transformation. Through monthly contributions, sponsors provide the necessary support that not only rescues a child from the grip of poverty but also creates a ripple effect that uplifts families and communities. By joining hands with GFA World, sponsors fulfill Christ’s command to care for and love children in poverty, bringing hope, light, and practical solutions to break the cycle of poverty. Together, we can rewrite the narrative for vulnerable children and build a future where their potential knows no bounds.

Learn more about elimination of child labor

[1] The University of Iowa Labor Center. 2019. “Child Labor in U.S. History | the University of Iowa Labor Center.” 2019.
[2] Editor, PT News. 2019. “Take a Look at the Photos That Ended Child Labor in the U.S.” PhotographyTalk. July 2, 2019.
[3] Calculating a generation as 40 years.
[4] Griffin, Emma. 2014. “Child Labour.” The British Library, May.
[5] Editor, PT News. 2019. “Take a Look at the Photos That Ended Child Labor in the U.S.” PhotographyTalk. July 2, 2019.
[6] Schuman, Michael. 2017. “History of Child Labor in the United States—Part 1: Little Children Working : Monthly Labor Review: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. January 12, 2017.
[7] Schuman, Michael. 2017. “Https://” Monthly Labor Review, January.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Schuman, Michael. 2017. “History of Child Labor in the United States—Part 1: Little Children Working : Monthly Labor Review: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. January 12, 2017.
[10] International Labour Organization. 2021. “2021: International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour.” January 15, 2021.–en/index.htm.
[11] “About Us, Not for Sale – End Modern Slavery and Exploitation.” 2016. Not for Sale. 2016.