Editorial: Child Labor Intricacies

From the Feb. 11, 1925, Issue

According to the champions of the proposed Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution, the Child  Labor Amendment—the battle is by no means over, but only really beginning. Every possible effort is to be put forth by those convinced of the merit and the necessity of the measure to secure its adoption. The widely heralded supposition that the amendment was already defeated since thirteen states have declared against it is being vigorously opposed. At any rate, it is certain that widespread  discussion of the whole question will continue, stimulated  and  swung one way or the other by the results in those states where referendums are to be held, or where state legislatures are still to take action. It is the purpose of The Commonweal to publish in its coming issues articles giving the arguments on both sides of the question. Meanwhile, it is well to point out that the somewhat shocked bewilderment which many proponents of the measure display because of the vigorous opposition of those who oppose the amendment is not warranted. That the people of the country should hesitate to adopt the measure is not really strange in spite of the idea of many benevolent people to the contrary.

The proposed amendment is by no means so simple a matter as it looks, nor are the valid pleadings all on one side. It is not wholly an altruistic question; it has some commercial and industrial factors of importance tangled up in the skein of discussion. In the higher sense, there is also a serious political  issue; it may be doubted  whether  the subject is a proper one for federal  action and it may be asked,  also, whether, whenever a laudable purpose, social, moral, or economic,  is to be effected, it is well to force it into the organic law of the nation as an amendment  to the Constitution. Presently, say some lawyers, the Constitution wall become a sort of glorified police code. There is hardly an evil that afflicts society, from promiscuous divorce to the great national vice of bad cookery that will not be placed under the power of Congress and the federal courts, if we keep on at the present rate.

Just here it may be noted that a leading cause of opposition or hesitation in the present case is that the proposed amendment does not legislate at all. All it does is give Washington the power to do so. It empowers the Congress to limit, regulate or prohibit by law the labor of persons under eighteen years of age. It is no direct hint as to what shall be done or how. If it were more mandatory as to details, it might be simpler. "We should know the worst and be done with it," say the doubters, “but the whole business over to the politicians, and we do not know what damaging excess they may run to, or, on the other hand, whether they will do anything worthwhile."

The fears expressed in this way represent conflicting impulses and opinions throughout the country, for there is wide difference of view as to the merits of the whole child labor agitation.  Everyone, including the employers of children, professes concern as to their welfare. Every decent  person  must  deplore  the fate of the  over-worked  mite, deprived  of  schooling,  robbed of  the free air and light, and starved as to exercise and amusement; passing the  years that should be  joyous in  the  grime, toil, darkness, and danger of a factory or mill. There can be no question as to the sadness, the horror of  the picture, and little as to the average effects in later years in  the  warping of  mind and instincts, unfitness for parentage and citizenship. The duty of remedying such a wrong cannot be evaded. Those who oppose the federal action in that direction should certainly force the individual states to reform it.

But  what, asks the opponent of reform by legal compulsion, if the substitute should be the other sort of starvation? What if parents are too poor to feed their families, and communities too poor to educate them? Would these little creatures be better off roaming the sweltering streets or sheltering in mephi tic cabins in summer, or shivering in icy corners or frigid tenements in winter? At work, they are sure of shelter and food. Then there is the  claim that by helping their families in the struggle  for existence and through early effort  to hold  their  own  in  the  world, they  become  excellently  fitted  for successful  adult Iife—variation on the well-known legend of the newsboy who grows up to be millionaire and not by any means groundless fiction.

There are, however, two strong currents of hostility to child labor based on these very arguments, especially the economic one. They are held insistently, even clamorously, by a host of business rivals, both employers and employees. The employers of adult workers in territory where child labor is forbidden protest that they are subjected to unfair and immoral competition.  How can they sell goods for the making of which they have to pay grown-up wages in the same markets with wares produced for the paltry pay of infants? The protest is serious. There is much basis for it and the counter-claim that differences in freight rates, shipping charges and proximity to markets offset the difference in labor cost will very seldom stand a close analysis.

Then there are the labor unions. They are equally aroused as to the effects of the wage differential. How can they expect to get sufficiently high rates to live decently and bring up families when their high class work is in competition as to its remuneration with the slave toil of oppressed children receiving hardly pay enough to keep them out of Potters’ Field? They talk a lot about the sentimental side of the question­ labor leaders do; and, in truth, they mean it-but above and behind all other considerations with them, this is an economic issue, a question of bread and butter, of life and death. And it is, to an extent that cannot be ignored or overlooked.

It cannot be questioned that there are abuses in child labor as it exists in some quarters which cry out for remedy. It may be said that the system is always so liable to abuse that the strong hand of the law must be extended to lessen at once and ultimately to eliminate them. This truth has so far prevailed that a large number of the states have regulatory or prohibitive measures, but so difficult is the whole subject that in many of these, exemptions and relaxations have been made legal, which, to use the popular phrase, have largely drawn the teeth of the human statutes. The Commissioner of Labor of Wisconsin is quoted as explaining thus—"Nearly everyone began to be poor. This led officials in many instances to disregard wholly the intent of the Legislature."

And this suggests one of the very strong reasons why the federal government should not be called in to regulate a matter which is inevitably conditioned in many particulars by local circumstances. The statute which may be fair and easy of endorsement in New York may be oppressive in Minnesota and impossible in Mississippi. Thus, it appears, prohibition of the labor of the young is dreaded in fanning states and in agricultural districts generally, because their help is an urgent necessity in the harvest season and the berrying season, and so on. In regions where canneries afford a large part of the wealth of the inhabitants, the work of men, women and children is needed in the packing season—urgently needed, because the material spoils quickly and must be disposed of in the shortest possible time. The relatively new mill industry in parts of the South asserts that it never could have got on its feet without the cheapest-that is to say children's—labor. Millions of persons are now supported by it. But it must be noted, the con­ trolling white clement find it difficult in these states to be thrilled over the plight of the little toilers, for few of them arc white children. It also must be asked if it can ever be morally justifiable to build up industries on the extorted or enforced labor of children. The children certainly are not free agents in such a one-sided affair.

So it is evident that the question, even though a general principle is innate in it, is inextricably complicated by regional conditions. On the whole, it is probably best solved by state legislation. If some of the states lag behind the country at large in their moral view of it, why not put pressure on them such as has been invoked to check lynching and to stop bogging in some southern prison camps?

It may be doubted whether the referendum is a very wise way in which to reach a decision on a matter where so many serious considerations are involved and wherein opinion is so apt to be affected by emotion rather than by real understanding of local welfare and national progress. Assuredly the voice of the pleader will reach more ears than the dry words of the lawyer and the business man. And of those who vote for business reasons, it may be suspected, that, as for instance in the case of the union workers, the interests of the first person singular will have more weight than those of  the third person plural.

The ratification will come up in some twenty-four legislatures this winter, not enough to confirm it, but enough to create a strong leaning one way or the other should all take action. There is good reason to believe that a majority will not do so.The inclination seems to be to take another year or two to think it over. The harm in such delay is negligible compared with committing the country at large to a policy of universal meddling and to robbing the states of that sense of sovereign power over their own affairs and responsibility therefore which was so emphatically stressed by the Fathers of the country. They formed a union based on the common needs and the inseparable good of all, the needs and concerns of our life as a nation; but they jealously reserved the internal policies and ideals of the several states to be determined and controlled by their own voters. It is strongly urged by many who style themselves "progressives" that it is folly to depend so much as has been usual upon the wisdom of the Fathers of the Constitution. How, they ask, with good reason, could anybody of men lay down principles of political and social action that arc the best for their descendants living in a world whose political and social conditions differ so widely from those prevailing a century and a half ago? But while there is merit in their argument, it is true that human experience and the present opinion of a vast number of Americans concur in dreading as one of the worst of human evils the concentration of power over the family and individuals in the hands of a central bureaucracy of politicians con­ trolled either by dictators, or by cliques of doctrinaire reformers, or covetous commercial interests. Let us, by all means, save the children from exploitation but not by turning their control over to the bureaucrats.

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