NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Banning Child Labor Could Make Children Worse Off

March 29, 2000

Attacks on child labor are guaranteed to elicit applause in the U.S. and other wealthy nations, but those in poverty-stricken Third World countries are much less likely to clap. They know too well that child labor is often the difference between eating and starving.

Who is a child and what is labor? An International Labor Office study notes that there are no simple answers to these questions, especially in developing countries. In the West, chronological age generally differentiates children from adults, but in the Third World cultural and social factors are also important. This is particularly true in rural agricultural areas where children necessarily are introduced to work at an early age.

Indeed, the magnitude of child labor in the U.S. is not inconsiderable.

  • In February, more than half of those aged 16 to 19 were in the labor force and more than 7 million were at work.
  • A Department of Labor study last year showed that 57 percent of those age 14 and 64 percent of those age 15 did some kind of paid work.
  • According to a 1998 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, 290,000 children are employed illegally in the U.S. during the course of a year.

Still, the effort to combat child labor is largely directed at poor countries. But when children are forced out of jobs because of international pressure, they often end up working longer hours for lower wages elsewhere or in dangerous occupations such as prostitution.

Moreover, within poor countries attacks on child labor are focused almost entirely on export industries, in the name of establishing international labor standards. This is really just thinly disguised protectionism.

Banning child labor is counterproductive, because the main cause of child labor is not exploitation, but poverty.

Source: Bruce Bartlett, senior fellow, National Center for Policy Analysis, March 29, 2000.


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