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Children Wanted

Children Wanted

by Beulah Amidon, in Survey Graphic, January, 1937, Vol.26, No.1

Man is the only animal that lives on its young,” was the bitter comment of an educator who saw children taken out of school to go to work. Here is the record of increasing child labor since the NRA codes ended—and the hope of child protection if twelve states ratify the federal amendment in 1937

BACK IN 1932, Helen’s father, who worked in a cotton garment factory, was laid-off “because of hard times.” Helen, aged thirteen, the eldest of five children, stopped school and got a job in the factory. Her wage was $2.50 for a fifty-hour week. She tried to keep up her school work at night. After the NRA underwear code went into effect, the factory hands under sixteen years of age were let out, Helen’s father was taken on again, and Helen went back to school. But the code did not last long. It ceased to function when the U. S. Supreme Court declared the Recovery Act unconstitutional. Within a few months the factory laid off many of its adult workers, Helen’s father among them. Helen, now fifteen years old and a high-school sophomore, again put aside her books to become a wage earner. When Helen was interviewed in the course of a survey in April 1936, she was working a fifty-two-hour week for $4.15, just under 8 cents an hour. A younger brother and sister were also working. Her father was still unemployed. “I don’t expect I’ll ever get back to school,” she said.

Small boys worked all night in the glass factories in 1911
Small boys worked all night in the glass factories in 1911

Helen, and the thousands of children like her who were swept back into manufacturing and trade after the Schechter decision, willprobably be front page news in the months ahead. Nineteen state legislatures are meeting this year. Twenty-four states have ratified the child labor amendment; if twelve more act—and act favorably—the amendment will be a part of the Constitution, conferring upon Congress the power, which the Supreme Court has ruled it now lacks, to safeguard young workers.

The NRA code period was the first time in this country that child labor figures went down while employment figures rose. That is, the child labor curve failed to follow the general employment trend. But since the spring of 1935 (the end of the codes) child labor has sharply increased. The U. S. Children’s Bureau has comparable data for the first five months of 1936 and the same months in 1935, when the codes were still effective. These figures cover ten states, the District of Columbia and ninety-eight cities in other states. (In none of these have there been changes in child labor regulations—local or state—between the two periods.) They show an increase of more than 150 percent in the number of fourteen and fifteen-year-olds taking out their first working papers. In the last seven months of 1935, after the codes were outlawed, 55 percent more children left school for jobs than during the entire twelve months of 1934. In New York City, the number of children, fourteen and fifteen years of age who got employment certificates in the first five months of 1936 was 200.1 percent higher than in the corresponding months of 1935, a jump from 1485 to 4462. Such figures are meaningless unless you see behind them the long procession of girls and boys who, like Helen, stopped school to take the low paid, dead end jobs available to untrained young workers.

Turpentine, a "remote" industry, employs children
Turpentine, a “remote” industry, employs children

What used to be called the “sweated industries,” typically operated in small units with limited capital, are chiefly responsible for the current increase in child labor. In sections of such industries as the needle trades, the paper box industry, canning, laundry. and so on labor standards have always been precarious. With a relatively large proportion of substandard employers and “shoe string” enterprises, they produced the most flagrant examples of exploitation in the trough of the depression. [See Survey Graphic, February 1933, page 75.] In these same areas labor standards have sagged since the codes ceased to support them.

There are geographical as well as industrial areas where labor standards have been notoriously low, and where children have never had the protection of adequately enforced compulsory education laws. Thus a recent survey by the National Child Labor Committee brought out a grim story of exploitation from the “piney woods” of South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana. The study covered not only the woods where trees are tapped for turpentine or cut for lumber, but also local plants making crates, barrels and wooden baskets. Child labor is the rule in turpentine camps. Boys, and a few girls, ten to fourteen years old, work as “chippers,” scarring the trees, and setting pans to catch the gum, and as “dippers,” collecting the gum. Wages seldom run as high as 8 cents an hour—3 to 5 cents is much more usual. A twelve-hour day is the rule. Many of these children are illiterate, few, if any, have gone beyond the primary grades. School is a luxury for all of them. Youngsters who spend their early years as “chippers” or “dippers” are usually hired with their fathers in getting out timber when they are thirteen or fourteen years old. The work is heavy. In hauling, a man and two boys can earn about $2.50 a day—less than 20 cents an hour for all three. The rates are about the same for work on poles and piling—topping and trimming felled trees, and removing the bark, often handling forty to seventy-foot logs.

These girls, aged ten and twelve work in the Colorado beet fields
These girls, aged ten and twelve work in the Colorado beet fields

In basket, crate, barrel and veneer factories, a boy at twelve may be a machine helper, and an operator at fourteen. The working day is supposed to be ten hours long, but in a rush reason in a one industry town, “sun-up to sun-down” is usually the rule. For a child, 75 cents a day is “top.” The usual wage is 50 to 60 cents in an industry where the price rate is set to hold down a speedy, experienced man to $2 a day. Starting with strawberry crates in February and continuing with spinach and bean hampers, tomato crates, corn and banana carriers and potato barrels these factories run eight to eleven months a year. Stapling, wire stitching and cutting machines are their chief equipment. Frequently the machines are not properly guarded. At their best, they are not fit for the small hands, limited strength and childish irresponsibility of young workers. There are no accident figures. Until last year, South Carolina and Florida did not have workmen’s compensation laws, and there is none yet in Mississippi. But children in these plants are in constant danger as are the young workers in the sawmills in the same area. Here belt and saw guards are generally considered “too expensive,” and maiming is all too frequent among the boys hired as “regular hands,” as well as among the youngsters who sometimes help on clean-up jobs.

The use of children as cheap labor is an ugly chapter in the machine age story. Early in the nineteenth century, girls and boys seven, eight and nine years old went as full time workers into the dusty cotton mills. In 1820, according to the Digest of Manufactures of that year, children made up 43 percent of the labor force in Massachusetts, 47 percent in Connecticut, 55 percent in Rhode Island. It was not the health hazard but the question of schooling, which finally turned public attention to the working children. One state after another passed compulsory education laws. Then came regulation of hours. Massachusetts led the way in 1842 with a ten-hour day for children under twelve years of age, and Connecticut went a step further with a ten-hour day for children under fourteen.

Boys who work for a Pennsylvania coal company
Boys who work for a Pennsylvania coal company

Laws setting a minimum age for employment came later, because it meant limiting this cheap labor supply. Under Quaker leadership, Pennsylvania passed the first minimum age law in 1848, barring children from factories until they were twelve years old, and raising the age to thirteen the next year. In 1853, Rhode Island set twelve years as the minimum for factory work; three years later, Connecticut prohibited the employment of children under nine. It was not until 1866 that Massachusetts set a minimum age for child workers. Its law decreed that children under ten must not work in factories or mills.

But child labor increased as industry developed. The 1900 census showed more than a million and a quarter young wage earners helping turn the wheels of American industry and trade. In 1904 the National Child Labor Committee was formed to lead an organized campaign for laws to protect children in the various states. Progress was slow. But though little was accomplished at the start in the way of protective legislation, an important task of public education was begun. Comfortable people were made aware of the plight of the grimy “breaker boys” in the coal mines, hundreds of seven and eight-year-olds among them; of youngsters in the heat of the glass factories, the dampness of the hemp mills and the canneries; of the boys and girls crippled for life by the machines they tended; of children getting up before dawn to go to the cotton mills—long lines of little figures in dim village streets, many of them bowed and slow moving, already old.

And in 1910 this Vermont girl was a full time employee in a cotton mill
And in 1910 this Vermont girl was a full time employee in a cotton mill

As a result of local and national effort, state legislation had spread by the time we went into the War, but its unevenness and the great areas left untouched led to the drive for federal action.

The first federal child labor law was passed in 1916. It prohibited the shipment in interstate commerce of goods produced in mines and quarries in which children under sixteen years of age were employed; or in mills, canneries, workshops in which children under fourteen were employed, or in which children aged fourteen to sixteen worked more than eight hours a day or six days a week or between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. The law went into effect September 1, 1917. Less than a year later it was declared unconstitutional by a five-to-four decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, on the ground that it transcended “the authority delegated to Congress over commerce,” and interfered with states’ rights. Justice Holmes, dissenting, held that “the act does not meddle with anything belonging to the states,” and added that “if there is any matter upon which civilized countries have agreed…it is the evil of premature and excessive child labor.”

A year later another attempt was made by Congress to regulate child labor, this time under a law levying a tax on the profits of all mines and manufacturing establishments failing to maintain the minimum standards set up in the 1916 measure. The Supreme Court, by an eight-to-one decision, held that the act was invalid.

The Amendment is Proposed

Six years after the first of these child labor decisions, a Scripps-Howard reporter interviewed Reuben Dagenhart of Charlotte, N.C., the boy whose “constitutional right to work” overthrew the law which sought to cut his hours of labor as a fourteen-year-old, from twelve to eight a day. “What benefit did you get out of the suit which you won in the United States Supreme?” the reporter asked.

“You mean the suit the Fidelity Manufacturing Company [his employer] won? I don’t see that I got any benefit. I guess I’d been a lot better off if they hadn’t won it. Look at me! I may be mistaken but I think the years I’ve put in the cotton mills stunted my growth. They kept me from getting any schooling. I had to stop school after the third grade and now I need the education I didn’t get… But I know one thing, I ain’t going to let them put my kid sister in the mill.”

Before the law of 1917 was declared unconstitutional it had done much to protect the health and the right to education of thousands of children who were not safeguarded by state laws. None of the many agencies which had supported the federal measure was willing to accept defeat and let the children pay the price. The only possibility seemed the long, slow process of constitutional amendment. The proposed amendment reads:

Section 1. The Congress shall have the power to limit, regulate and prohibit the labor of persons under eighteen years of age.

Section 2. The power of the several states is unimpaired by this article except that the operation of state laws shall be suspended to the extent necessary to give effect to legislation enacted by the Congress.

With the endorsement of all political parties, this measure was passed by Congress in 1924, with heavy majorities in both houses. Prior to 1933 only six of the necessary thirty-six states had ratified. The successful campaign of opposition was led, according to its own admission, by the National Association of Manufacturers.

With the onset of the depression, there was mounting dismay over the breakdown of labor standards, the return of the sweatshop, the increasing numbers of children at work while millions of men and women were unable to get jobs. The situation was pictured in a widely reprinted cartoon from Judge, showing a small boy going off with his dinner pail, while his unemployed parents look after him with humiliation and grief. The caption read, “He got his father’s job.” There was a wave of interest in the federal child labor amendment and in 1933, fourteen states ratified, including the industrial strongholds of Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan and New Jersey.

Under the Recovery Act Codes

OF THE 552 approved NRA codes, only fourteen had exceptions permitting the employment of children under sixteen in industry or trade. (The fourteen exceptions covered a group of retail trades where children could work three hours a day outside school hours; motion pictures, radio and broadcasting; newspaper and periodical publishing.) The child labor provisions had the backing of public opinion and were well enforced. They took at least 100,000 children out of industry. When the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry made a survey of the cotton garment industry in 1934, it found “only two children under sixteen years . . . at work out of 12,000 employee; and this in an industry where one worker in every twenty-five was under sixteen in 1932.” Pennsylvania’s experience was typical of what happened in every industrial area. During the last four months of 1933, not a single child in Alabama took out working papers for industrial employment; the same thing was true of twenty-seven cities reporting to the U. S. Children’s Bureau, including Fall River and New Bedford, Mass., both important textile towns; Jersey City, Camden and Hoboken, N. J.; Buffalo, N. Y.; and Allentown, Pa., where, a few months earlier the strike of hundreds of “baby-shirtmakers” had drawn attention to the boys and girls working long hours at sweatshop wages in jobs opened by “letting out” adult employee.

The common acceptance of the child labor prohibition by employers and the general public continued to influence employment policies, even after the legal barrier was removed. Many industries assumed responsibility for holding certain gains made in the code period. For example, Massachusetts textile manufacturers entered into an agreement last spring under which no mill will take workers under sixteen years of age. As a result of this agreement, the press reported, 1600 children were laid off, and their places filled by older workers.

In the street trades, five-year-olds often work
In the street trades, five-year-olds often work

So far, code standards in regard to child labor seem to have been quite generally maintained in the southern textile industry, though without formal action by the owners. This is probably due in part to nation-wide criticism of the former child labor policies of southern textile employers, and in part to the fear of more stringent legislation. But it is significant that so far every attempt to secure ratification of the amendment by a southern legislature has met well organized and successful opposition. This opposition sometimes reaches into other states. For example, when the amendment was before the Nebraska legislature, in 1935, the legislators received printed material mailed in Charlotte, N. C., warning them according to The Norfolk (Neb.) News, that Congress, if given the power, would probably make it a crime for mother to send Johnny out to the shed for a basket of cobs. But in spite of the NRA experience and the honest desire of many employers to maintain code standards, the lack of uniform child labor provisions over the country means that the just employer is called on to meet the competition of the employer willing to exploit the young and inexperienced.

Since 1933, there have been few changes in state legislation. In some instances, compulsory education laws have been tightened in requirements and in administration. Four important industrial states—New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island—have been added to the three states which had previously passed laws setting a sixteen-year minimum for work during school hours. But the inadequacy of state regulation of child labor is shown by such facts as these: nine states, through exemptions in their laws, still permit children under fourteen to work in industry during school hours; seven states permit children between fourteen and sixteen years of age to work nine to eleven hours a day; ten states allow children in this age group to work until 8 p.m. or later; thirty-two states have practically no regulation of the employment in hazardous occupations of sixteen and seventeen-year-old girls and boys.

Typical of today's youthful sweatshop workers, a 1930 dress operator
Typical of today’s youthful sweatshop workers, a 1930 dress operator

Since 1933, also, only four state legislatures have ratified the child labor amendment. Well organized opposition has developed in state after state and succeeded, as it did, for example, in New York last winter, in blocking a vote on ratification. In other states, powerful lobbies worked to roll up an unfavorable vote.

It is interesting to analyze the sources of opposition to this constitutional amendment permitting Congress to enact legislation protecting young workers. Some opponents sincerely believe that it is an invasion of states’ rights, or that it deals with matters outside the proper sphere of government. But, as Mayor La Guardia of New York said at a child labor hearing in the 1935 legislature, “It is not the constitutionality of the amendment which is chiefly opposed; it is the economics of the amendment.” The most determined opponents of ratification are those who profit from child labor, and those who, like the utility groups, fear a precedent for federal control. Their methods are often skillful and unscrupulous. They misrepresent the scope and purpose of the proposed amendment and of the type of legislation it would make possible. Thus, many Catholic groups have been led to believe that the child labor amendment means federal regulation of education and the possible abolition of parochial schools; And in spite of the fact that Cardinal Gibbons was one of the organizers of the National Child Labor Committee, today there is an active Catholic Citizens Committee for Ratification, headed by Frank P. Walsh and including distinguished priests, lawyers, educators and labor and civic leaders in its membership, the Catholic attitude has been the decisive factor in some states in preventing ratification.

Opposition to the Amendment

A NATIONAL COMMITTEE for the Protection of Child, Family, School and Church, was organized in 1934, its executive committee interlocking with the discredited Sentinels of the Republic. It helped broadcast propaganda to the effect that the child labor amendment meant interference with the family and with tasks assigned by parents to their children around the house or on the farm.

But back of this campaign of misrepresentation playing on old loyalties and fears, creating doubt and misunderstanding, are employers who find child labor profitable. They are the newspaper and magazine publishers, contractors who give out industrial homework, and factory owners, notably in the needle trades.

Among the most determined opponents of the child labor amendment are the newspaper publishers. The newspapers have always enjoyed a cheap circulation system, based on child labor. The publishers successfully resisted amendments to their code strengthening the provisions regulating child labor in the sale and delivery of papers. These additions to the code would have set a fourteen-year minimum for newsboys, an eighteen-year minimum for girls, with, an exemption in favor of boys of twelve already employed. They would have forbidden work before 6 a.m. and late in the evening for boys under sixteen; and required badges issued by a public agency under the U. S. Department of Labor for children in the newspaper trade. At a code hearing circulation managers testified that boys were “no good” for newspaper distribution after the age of fourteen because they “became interested in girls.” Under questioning, that was repeatedly broken down into an admission that the older boys were not attracted by the low rates of pay.

Though the publishers of newspapers and magazines claimed that experience as a “little merchant” is healthful and educational, considerable evidence was offered to show that this form of child labor, like so many others is to the advantage of the employer rather than of the young employee. The National Child Labor Committee presented grim testimony at the code hearing on accidents to newsboys. Since most publishers carefully give their young agents the status of “independent merchants” not employees, the children are seldom covered by state workmen’s compensation laws. Or, as the Central States’ Circulation Managers Association recently put it, “the independent merchant pays for his injuries and injuries to others through his own negligence.”

The letter sent by Warden Lewis E. Lawes of Sing Sing Prison to the code hearing is still eloquent:

It has often been said that some of our finest citizens have made their start in life through selling newspapers. In my opinion, these same men had sufficient character, even in their boyhood, to withstand the hard knocks, the temptations and the bad associations that are a definite part of the life of a newsboy, especially in the metropolitan districts and the larger cities. These citizens would have risen to their eminence had they begun their climb up the ladder from the workshop of any other industry. Recently I had a census taken here in Sing Sing to determine the number of inmates who had sold newspapers in their youth. The examination showed that of the 2300 men, over 69 percent had done so.

When the codes were knocked out, the publishers, with a few such notable exceptions as the Scripps-Howard papers, J. David Stern of the Philadelphia Record and New York Post, Jonathan Daniels of the Raleigh (N. C.) News and Observer, and the late Marlen Pew of Editor and Publisher, concentrated their attention on blocking the child labor amendment. At the beginning of the 1934 legislative sessions, a newspaper publisher warned a friend of the child labor amendment, “Now you’re going to see a fight. What we’ve done before was just a drop in the bucket.” So far, the anti-ratification campaign to “stop the amendment” has been successful. Last year, five legislatures considered ratification and all five rejected it.

A national poll by the American Institute of Public Opinion in May 1936, returned a six-to-four vote in favor of the regulation of child labor by Congress In this poll, the child labor amendment carried every state except South Dakota, Kansas and Maryland. All ten of the largest cities in the country favored it. Even the southern states, presumably the stronghold of states’ rights and of child labor, returned decisive majorities for the amendment. The four reasons most frequently cited by those voting “yes” were: “Children under eighteen should all be in school, not out working. There’s plenty of time for that later.” “It will help solve unemployment by providing more jobs for older people who need work most.” “We must protect our children. They can’t stand shop work. It ruins their health.” “Child labor is a national problem and Congress is most capable of handling it.”

ALABAMA AND RHODE ISLAND are the only states in the union which have taken no action on the child labor amendment. The rest of the states which have not ratified have rejected the amendment. They all have the right to reconsider, as a number of the states now in the “ratified” column have already done.

Helen who works in the underwear factory is now seventeen years old. Even if the amendment were ratified this winter, as it may be if favorable public opinion is sufficiently articulate, she and thousands of her young fellow workers are above the age limit of any legislation likely to result; and no legislation, however enlightened its standards, could give back to them their lost school years.

But the amendment would make possible a federal child labor law which could release other thousands of younger workers from mills and factories, from turpentine camps and sugar beet fields, from messenger service and paper routes, from restaurants and stores. It could not restore the young victims of industrial accident, but it could prevent the sacrifice of life and limb which results each working day from letting inexperienced youth try to handle complex or improperly guarded machinery in factories, lumber mills, meat markets, garages, mines, quarries. It could remove children from a crowded labor market, and open up employment opportunities for their unemployed elders. It could save wage standards from the threat of the cheap labor of the young and inexperienced.

John Dewey, philosopher and educator, has said, “What the wisest and best parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children.” To write into the Constitution the child labor amendment would be a step toward that civilized goal.

Source: Amidon, B. (1937, January).  Children Wanted. Survey Graphic, 26 (1), 10-15.

4 Replies to “Children Wanted”

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