USA: Pitting Child Safety Against the Family Farm – New York Times Opinion Page

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USA: Pitting Child Safety Against the Family Farm – New York Times Opinion Page

Pitting Child Safety Against the Family Farm – New York Time Opinion Page Last month, a proposal by the United States Department of Labor to prevent children under age 16 from working in dangerous farm jobs ignited a firestorm in conservative media outlets. The new rules would have restricted having young workers handle pesticide, operate heavy machinery, cut timber and perform other agricultural tasks identified as hazardous to children by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Conservatives quickly went on the attack. Senator Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, argued that “if the federal government can regulate the kind of relationship between parents and their children on their own family’s farm, there is almost nothing off-limits in which we see the federal government intruding in a way of life.” Fox News posted a story entitled, “Team Obama Wants Children Banned from Doing Farm Chores.” Sarah Palin chimed in on Facebook: “The Obama administration is working on regulations that would prevent children from working on our own family farms.”

So the Obama administration quickly reversed course, acknowledging “thousands of comments expressing concerns about the effect of the proposed rules on small family-owned farms.”

This is not the first time reform of agricultural child labor laws has been beaten back by a supposed threat to the family farm. In the 1920s a proposed Child Labor Amendment to the Constitution was fiercely contested. The amendment would have given Congress power to regulate the labor of people under age 18. But by orchestrating a sophisticated campaign that included front groups with names such as Citizens’ Committee to Protect Our Homes and Children, business interests frightened farm families with propaganda about a government conspiracy to forbid chores on the family farm.

In 1924, at the height of the controversy, the president of the Southern Textile Association, whose interest was to prevent regulation of cheap child labor in cotton mills, sent an estimated 50,000 pieces of literature to Southern farmers claiming that the proposed amendment would invade their homes and give the federal government control over their children. The anti-amendment campaign was so effective that reformers spent the majority of their time rebutting misinformation that was spreading throughout the country. By the spring of 1925, the amendment was a dead letter.

The amendment’s defeat was a great reversal for a movement to end child labor that had achieved enormous success, until the 1920s. The child laborer had become, during the Gilded Age, a symbol of capitalism’s worst excesses. Reformers, many the descendants of antislavery activists, defined child labor as the worst national evil since slavery and invoked the passion of their forebears as they pushed for federal regulation.

By 1916, reformers had secured a federal child labor law — the Keating-Owen Act — without much controversy. The bill prohibited the products of child labor from interstate commerce. Two years later, though, the Keating-Owen Act was declared unconstitutional by a pro-business Supreme Court that was out of step with national sentiment.

Of course, the family farm was never the target of reform legislation, though it was used rhetorically by the opponents of reform. In the 1920s, as now, reformers were explicit that their legislative efforts would not affect children working on family farms or on the farms of relatives acting in parental roles. But by shifting the debate to red herrings — the supposed downfall of the private farm, and correspondingly of parental authority and rural ways of life — the opposition managed, as it has again now, to distract us from the real problem of exploitative child labor on farms.

Before the bugaboo of prohibiting chores on the family farm was invented by business interests in the 1920s, protecting children from all forms of labor exploitation was a moral issue that united the nation. Reformers’ victories rested on the widespread conviction that our nation would never be truly free until all forms of child labor were abolished from our midst. By the time New Deal legislation was passed, however, child labor was defined much more narrowly. The reformers’ goal of protecting children from every type of labor exploitation has been all but forgotten.

The recent proposal by the Department of Labor was intended to protect poor migrant child workers who do seasonal farm work for “Big Agriculture.” They sorely need it. According to Human Rights Watch, child farm workers are at greater risk of pesticide poisoning, serious injury, heat illness, and death than any other youth workers in America.

The hullabaloo revealed that the same commercial forces that thwarted the Child Labor Amendment in the 1920s continue to stymie reform today. In an age when Big Agriculture still benefits from the laxity of our child labor laws, the reformers’ legacy is one we would do well to reclaim.

Marjorie Elizabeth Wood, a lecturer in history at the University of New Hampshire, is writing a history of the politics of child labor in the United States.

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