NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 21, 2005

Poverty, not parents, force children in poor countries to work, says author Virginia Postrel in the New York Times. Using research from over the past several years, researchers and economists are trying to erode some popular beliefs about why children work, what they do and when they are likely to leave work for school.

Dartmouth economists Eric V. Edmonds and Nina Pavcnik, two leaders in child labor research, say contrary to popular perception in high-income countries, most of the 211 million children, ages 5 to 14, working worldwide, work in agriculture and are employed by their parents, not factories.

Some of the best data comes from Vietnam, which tracked about 3,000 households from 1993 to 1998, a period of rapid economic growth in which the gross domestic product (GDP) rose about nine percent a year. Using this data, Edmonds found:

  • Child labor dropped by nearly 30 percent and rising incomes explain about 60 percent of that shift.
  • For families escaping poverty and earning enough to pay for adequate food and basic necessities, higher income accounted for 80 percent of the drop in child labor.
  • Child labor does not appear to vary with per capita expenditure until households can meet their food needs, and then it declines dramatically.

During this same period, Vietnam repealed its policy against exporting rice. This change, along with the family survey data, allowed Edmonds and Pavcnik to examine what happens when household incomes rise but children's labor also becomes more valuable. Edmonds found, with rising income, the households purchased substitutes for child labor. They used more fertilizers, more mechanization and purchased more tools.

As the data indicates, families do not want their children to work. Parents pull their children out of work when they can afford to, even when the wages children could earn are rising. Postrel says poverty, not culture, appears to be the fundamental problem.

Source: Virginia Postrel, "Research Changes Ideas About Children and Work," New York Times, July 14, 2005.

For text:

For Edmonds text:


Browse more articles on Economic Issues