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Exploiting the Child
An Editorial in The Nation, May, 1934
Editor’s Note: The Child Labor amendment discussed in this entry was proposed in 1924 following rulings by the Supreme Court in 1918 and 1922 that federal laws regulating and taxing goods produced by employees under the ages of 14 and 16 were unconstitutional. By the mid-1930’s the majority of state governments had ratified the amendment; however, according to Article V of the Constitution, three quarters of the states are required to ratify it before it is adopted. The issue became mute when in 1938 the Fair Labor Standards Act, allowing federal regulation of child labor, was enacted. In 1941, the Supreme Court approved the law.
THE constitutional amendment giving Congress the right to prohibit child labor has been ratified by twenty States. Only one more State, Louisiana, will vote on the amendment this year, unless at the special legislative session now meeting in New Mexico the question should be brought up. Although in 1933, when fourteen States voted for the amendment–some of them reversing former votes in doing so–there seemed to be a marked swing toward adoption, since January 1, 1934, of the eight States which have considered the matter, among them Massachusetts and New York, none has voted favorably.
Nobody wants child labor (contrary to the history of the national prohibition amendment, which perhaps half of the population wanted at one time) in the common-sense definition of the term as labor of children for hire or profit. Yet the National Committee for the Protection of the Child, Family, Home, and Church, the preposterously named organization which has lately been created in opposition to the amendment, includes among its spokesmen such nationally known humanitarians as A. Lawrence Lowell, president emeritus of Harvard University, Elihu Root, and Nicholas Murray Butler, head of Columbia University. And the New York State committee which opposed ratification at Albany this spring included, besides Messrs. Root and Butler, Frederic R. Coudert, Anne Morgan, Mrs. Charles H. Sabin, George W. Wickersham, and several dozen other men and women prominent in public life. All these persons would say, and many have said publicly more than once, that they were unequivocally opposed to the improper employment of children in mills, factories, mines, and so on, and in general to the exploitation of minors for unseemly profit. Yet they are willing to fight against the child-labor amendment, which would prevent just these things, on the ground that it does other things in addition which they consider unjustified and un-American. The arguments against the adoption of the child-labor amendment are taken up one by one in the admirably argued brief for adoption prepared by the committee for ratification of which Charles C. Burlingham, former president of the New York Bar Association, is chairman. After pointing out conclusively that there is no time limit in the Constitution on the ratification of amendments and that States which have formerly rejected an amendment may subsequently accept it, the argument proceeds to deny that the amendment will, as its opponents say, permit an unwarranted invasion of the American home, school, and church. President Butler, in a letter to the New York Times last December expressing his opposition to the proposed constitutional change, actually raised the time-honored bogy of federal inspectors invading the American home and arresting little Mary for washing up the supper dishes. It is hard to believe that President Butler believes this would happen, but if he does he might be soothed by a statement in the Burlingham brief:
It has been almost a century since the first child-labor legislation began to appear on the statute books. Throughout this very long period of time, in the enactments of all of the State legislatures dealing with the problem, no example of abuse of authority has been found…. In no State has the labor of children on their family farm been regulated. In none has the home been invaded under the guise of regulating child labor. In none has the regulation or prohibition of premature employment operated to destroy the republican form of government. In none has the State’s solicitude for the health of its youth been repaid by the automatic conversion of its wards to bolshevism. By what strange alchemy will the power to regulate child labor become so fraught with peril when entrusted to the national government? Are the men whom the States send to Congress possessed of some strange virus which makes it unsafe to give to them power exercised as a matter of course by the legislators who remain in the State capitols?
We must conclude that behind this opposition on the part of intelligent, high-minded, and undoubtedly sincere persons stands a group that does want child labor, that would benefit by child labor, that employs child labor for miserable wages today–where there are no NRA codes or they are not enforced–and that proposes to continue to do so if it is in any way possible. As recently as April, 1930, it was estimated that 667,000 children under sixteen were gainfully employed. In New York City the number of boys and girls employed as domestics increased 60 per cent in the decade between 1920 and 1930; in Philadelphia the increase was 70 per cent; in Chicago, 153 per cent; in Detroit and Cleveland, more than 175 per cent. One of the large employers of children in the country is the press. So powerful and insistent was the pressure of this industry that a provision was actually written into the tentative newspaper code permitting the employment of newsboys under sixteen years of age, although the NRA’s chief claim to fame is that it has temporarily, at least, abolished child labor.
To get the amendment passed in the necessary sixteen additional States will require work of the toughest and most unrelenting sort. The legislatures of twenty-two States which have not ratified the amendment meet in January, 1935. They must be urged by every possible means to vote favorably on an important and necessary piece of legislation.
Source: “Exploiting the Child,” An Editorial in The Nation, ( Vol. 138, No. 3593, p. 551), May, 1934. Permission granted for non-commercial, educational purposes by The Nation.