The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 21, 2018

Without addressing poverty, child labor laws aren’t enough to keep kids safe

May 21, 2018

A new US Department of Labor proposal that would loosen certain child labor laws has drawn pushback from people worried about kids facing a higher risk of injury in the workplace. The proposal would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to spend longer hours training for hazardous jobs such as roofing and operating chainsaws, occupations the government currently considers too dangerous for kids younger than 18.

Proponents of these looser rules hope they would expand apprenticeships and offer more opportunities for young people who don’t go to a four-year college, while critics point to the heightened danger for kids in these high-risk jobs.

In the following conversation, Molly Scott, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, explains why people should look at the bigger picture of why dangerous jobs might seem like good choices to young people living in poverty and what policy solutions could help improve their well-being.

What factors are missing from the child labor law conversation?

People assume that kids are not at risk if we have child labor laws. But kids are already at risk even with our existing laws. For our 2016 report, Impossible Choices, we had conversations across the country with low-income kids ages 12 to 17. We consistently saw that when there aren’t enough resources at home, young people are taking on an adult role at a very young age.

They always try to look for a job first, but there are often not enough jobs available or they are not accessible to teens. When young people can’t find a conventional job, they do other things to make money that can put them at risk outside of a regulated workplace. They often first try odd jobs—like selling candy, mowing lawns, or doing hair—but when that’s not enough, they steal what they need. Young men also get involved in criminal activity, and young women often start having inappropriate relationships with older men.

It’s heartbreaking for young people to be in this position. But these are rational choices given their circumstances. People aren’t willing to put themselves at unreasonable risk if they have any other choice.

If you’re not addressing the root problem of poverty, child labor laws by themselves don’t do a great job of protecting the most economically vulnerable kids. Research from the developing world has shown that these laws may actually limit traditional job opportunities for poor young people and direct them toward riskier informal work. At the end of the day, it might be preferable for those kids to be in a regulated workplace with oversight from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) than on a corner somewhere.

Why do low-income kids struggle to find jobs?

Young people make up a smaller share of the entry-level workforce than they used to. And youth employment has been declining for decades, falling from 58 percent in 1979 to 34 percent in 2015. There are lots of theories about why youth employment has dropped over time. Many adults have moved into industries that used to employ mostly youth, so kids are competing with adults for those jobs.

There’s also a growing trend of on-demand scheduling, and employers in a lot of service industries are now expecting their employees to be able to work on-call. If a kid is in school, it’s hard for them to balance those things. Moreover, poor kids often don’t live in neighborhoods with many jobs to begin with. 

The more difficult we make it for low-income kids to find employment, the more likely those kids are to try to make money in more dangerous ways. We need to address the bigger problem.

What lessons can we learn from child labor issues in the developing world?

Child labor is a huge issue in the developing world, and experts and policymakers there explicitly recognize child labor as being driven by poverty and need. We don’t really do that here. We want to prevent business abuse, which we should do, but we don’t acknowledge that the reason many young people are willing to put themselves at risk or work long hours is because there’s real need at home.

A lot of interventions to reduce child labor in the developing world focus solidly on trying to alleviate family poverty. There have been several successful pilots involving conditional cash transfers—money to families that offsets the money that the child would be earning. Researchers have seen some good results, particularly in reducing early work and increasing school attendance among boys. The biggest problem with child labor is often how much it can detract from school and take away from investing in the future.

Real help to make ends meet can fundamentally change the choices available to families and young people. Everyone wants the best for their child, and every child wants to be safe and succeed.

What policy solutions can help keep low-income kids safe?

We need to work with businesses to figure out how we have more good jobs for adults, and we need to make sure we have a decent safety net for families.

If you really want to protect children, you should care about what happens to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, you should care about cutbacks to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and you should care about rent hikes for families in assisted housing

We also have to figure out how to increase the work opportunities available to young people and to make sure work supports their growth and development.

Lastly, we need safe workplaces for everyone, regardless of age. That’s why OSHA is so important. Moreover, some tasks on the job are probably too dangerous for anyone. We should figure out how to use technology to make those tasks safer for workers.  

All these things would go a long way in helping to ensure the safety and well-being of young people and prevent the worst of child labor.

Photo by Halfpoint/Getty Images.

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