I recently took my family to a favorite hometown attraction, the Lackawanna County Coal Mine Tour. I grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where anthracite mining was once a major industry, and the coal-mine tour gives contemporary residents a glimpse of what their ancestors endured underground.
As a child, I was fascinated by stories of kids at work in the mines: breaker boys, nippers, mule drivers. But this time, holding my youngest child’s hand in the dark, chilly tunnel, I shuddered as our guide described the routine tragedies of mining life: children losing fingers and limbs, or losing a father to a cave-in and having to go to work to replace him. She explained the economic system that attracted and then bound the families who lived in company housing, bought their necessities from company stores, and got as little for their labor as the bosses could get away with.
I came to the surface grateful for unions and labor laws, for school and all the other enriching opportunities that fill my children’s days. I picked up a book, Growing Up in Coal Country by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, to fill out my children’s notions of life in the unenlightened past. And then I read a story in the Washington Post about how, in 2023, Republican-controlled state legislatures are rolling back restrictions on child labor, using legislation created and promoted by a think tank ironically called the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA).
Reporters Jacob Bogage and María Luisa Paúl connected the FGA to efforts gaining ground in several states. The Iowa assembly passed a law that allows fourteen-year-olds to work the night shift and fifteen-year-olds to work on assembly lines. In Arkansas, children under sixteen no longer need to obtain work permits or have their ages verified by employers. The talking points supporting these laws are always about parents’ rights and freedom from government intrusion, and supporters talk about teens who want to work a few hours after school to gain valuable experience and build character. The FGA’s vice president, Nick Stehle, told the Post his organization advocates “removing the permission slip that inserts government in between parents and their teenager’s desire to work.” That sounds swell, until you remember why the government got between kids and their prospective bosses in the first place.
The children in Pennsylvania coal towns a century ago might have expressed a “desire to work,” if you’d asked them how they felt about it. Younger kids might have found it a more exciting prospect than going to school. Older boys knew going to work could keep their families from getting thrown out of their company-owned homes. But kids are famously bad at weighing risks. And whatever their motivations, those workers weren’t “free.” The labor movement fought for laws restricting child labor because those families knew there was no freedom in feeding their own children to the system that kept them in poverty. They knew the United States should not be a nation where poor children have to choose between attending school and supporting their families.