A group of breaker boys working in a coal mine in Pittston, Pennsylvania, 1911 (Lewis Hine/Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

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.

The United States should not be a nation where poor children have to choose between attending school and supporting their families.

We don’t even have to look to the last century to understand what happens when kids become cheap labor. Present-day efforts to roll back worker protections are happening alongside a surge in illegal child labor in the United States, as established earlier this year in a remarkable report by New York Times journalist Hannah Dreier. Thousands of children, mostly recent arrivals from South America, work the night shift in Michigan factories and fall asleep in school during the day. Or they work on construction crews in Florida and skip school altogether. They need money to send home to their families living in poverty in places like rural Guatemala, or to pay off the sponsors who got them into the United States with the promise of a place to stay.

Dreier’s reporting described “a chain of willful ignorance” that leaves those children open to exploitation: companies outsource hiring to third parties, then pretend not to notice when the workers reporting for duty are underage. Government agencies, understaffed and underfunded, can’t properly vet sponsors before releasing unaccompanied minors to their supervision, adequately track those minors once they are released, or send out enough workplace inspectors to enforce existing child-labor laws. And the children can’t upset the system without endangering the families counting on them back home.

Republicans have taken note of the underclass of child laborers exposed in Dreier’s reporting, but only as a launching pad for attacks on the Biden administration’s immigration policies. They’re not supporting more funding for overwhelmed government agencies, just rooting for more punitive measures to keep migrants out.

Our guide in the mine explained to my wide-eyed children that, back in the day, there were no laws against children working dangerous jobs. From Bartoletti’s book, I learned that wasn’t quite true: after 1885, boys younger than twelve could not legally work sorting coal in the breaker, and a boy had to be fourteen before working underground. “But parents and coal operators found it easy to get around the law in Pennsylvania, which had no compulsory regulation of births.” Everyone knew the six-year-old breaker boys were hired with fraudulent papers. Everyone looked the other way.

Those children, posing for photographers with their lunch pails and coal-blackened faces, look to us like ghosts from a shameful past. But they are no different from the kids in sneakers putting up scaffolding and working assembly lines today. Their parents loved them and couldn’t keep them safe; their employers took advantage of their poverty; their comfortable contemporaries shrugged. They deserved better. And we know better. Corporations will always seek to boost profits any way they can; the limits have to come from us. We can’t afford to play dumb as labor protections fail and disappear. Treating children like cheap labor costs too much.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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Published in the July/August 2023 issue: View Contents
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