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January 18, 2012 11:15 AM Leave child-labor laws alone

By Steve Benen

Support for child-labor laws was taken as a given for much of the 20th century. The fact that this seems to be changing is getting kind of creepy.

Marie Diamond flags a new example: Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) trying to connect child-labor laws to childhood obesity.

Concern was raised about the proposed Department of Labor’s intent to greatly limit child labor on family farms.

“This farm bill will greatly affect our FFA and 4-H programs,” said Grassley. “Kids won’t be able to help on farms not owned by their parents.

“It’s interesting that this child labor bill goes against Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity initiative,” said Grassley. “How can kids be active if they are limited by this law?”

Diamond explained the larger context: “Under current law, 400,000 children working on farms are not protected from exploitation and dangerous labor. The proposed rules would forbid children younger than 16 from working with pesticides, timber operations, handling ‘power-driven equipment,’ or contributing to the ‘cultivation, harvesting and curing of tobacco.’”

Republicans see this as a mistake. Indeed, as far as Grassley is concerned, the safeguards will contribute to childhood obesity because there are effectively only two scenarios for kids 15 and under: they can work or they can be sedentary. There are no other options.

But let’s also not overlook the larger trend. Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich has made criticism of child-labor laws a key part of his campaign message. In Maine, Gov. Paul LePage (R) launched an effort to roll back the state’s child-labor laws, and a similar measure was introduced in Missouri last year. As we talked about a year ago, a sitting U.S. Senator, Utah’s Mike Lee (R), has argued that federal child-labor laws violate the Constitution and shouldn’t even exist.

Remember when there were accepted political norms that helped define the American mainstream? Basic policy tenets that both major parties accepted, largely without question?

I don’t know when or if those days are coming back.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

Comments

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  • K in VA on January 18, 2012 11:22 AM:

    Seriously, didn't America decide all this AGAINST exploiting child workers a century ago? What will the GOP come up with next? Sending Doughboys to France? Booze bans? Bobbed hair? A revival of Smoot-Hawley?

  • foghorn on January 18, 2012 11:26 AM:

    Come on, Steve. Grassley is demonstrating compassionate conservatism at its finest. He's all about the unfortunate overweight kids down on the farm.

  • P. Audette on January 18, 2012 11:29 AM:

    This sounds like a coordinated effort. What's the source of the idea? There has to be some rightwing "think" tank behind it. Probably funded by the infamous Koch brothers.

  • golack on January 18, 2012 11:29 AM:

    Workers are not resources but cost centers.

  • jonas on January 18, 2012 11:33 AM:

    You know where this is leading: no food stamps or unemployment benefits if there's anyone over 12 in the household who could be working as a bootblack or something. That would necessitate rolling back mandatory secondary education, but I'm sure Jim DeMint has some legislative aids already hard at work on that...

  • Ron Byers on January 18, 2012 11:33 AM:

    Could we get some context. I don't know anything about the proposed regs except what is stated in the last sentence of the post. I can tell you that farm kids are expected to work and work hard on the farm. It has been that way for centuries. A lot of farmers will be totally opposed to any serious changes to what they consider their way of life. Don't give me any crap about exploiting kids unless you know something about the regulations or come from a rural background.

  • zeitgeist on January 18, 2012 11:34 AM:

    it will get worse before it gets better. as bad as the economy may seem right now, these are truly the problems of wealth, of a society now a generation removed from Sinclair's "Jungle" and catastrophic textile sweat-shop fires. Things have been relatively safe, both physically and economically, for so long that we;ve become complacent and now see only the downside -- the "restrictions on liberty," the regulation as a "tax on job creators," that we forget why the regulations were put in place, why unions mattered.

    and we wont care enough or be midful enough until the backsliding has had horrendous consequences for a critical mass of the population. when we all know someone with black lung or asbestosis, when we know that once or twice a year one of our family will be in the hospital with severe food poisoning, when our kids cant get help paying for college because they should have been saving their pittance from mopping school floors since they were 9 years old.

    and then as we approach third-world status the cycle will start all over again with hue and cry for government protections. you like to think our intellect would mean we could see this as a sociaety without having to endure living it, that we could learn from the past rather than being condemned to repeat it. but all present evidence is to the contrary.

  • Gummitch on January 18, 2012 11:35 AM:

    Indeed, as far as Grassley is concerned, the safeguards will contribute to childhood obesity because there are effectively only two scenarios for kids 15 and under: they can work or they can be sedentary. There are no other options.

    Thanks to conservatives there really aren't a lot of other options because they've managed to gut public schools so they can't afford simple programs like PE.

  • c u n d gulag on January 18, 2012 11:39 AM:

    The issues is kids working with dangerous pesticides, machinery, and equipment.

    Exposure to many pesticides is very hazardous, at even the smallest level.

    And, as for working around some machinery and equipment, not every boy who get part of his fingers chopped off can become a great Baseball Pitcher like Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown.

    At least I wouldn't want to bank on it.

  • zeitgeist on January 18, 2012 11:41 AM:

    Ron -

    I agree with your concern, and Grassley's general issue is not out of line. Or at least it wouldn't have been back when there were real family farms. The problem is that corporate farming having swalloed most family operations means the kids aren't working for their parents or their friends but for some bean-counter at a multinational food conglomerate, and the "kids" are often from poor or migrant families (or even undocumented parents) and are easily exploited in the worse of conditions -- conditions horrible for the animals and no better for the human workers.

    The proposed rules dont appear to ban kids working, or even working hard. But it makes sense to say they cant be around toxic chemicals and the like.

  • Danp on January 18, 2012 11:43 AM:

    This is all about competing with China by imitating China. You can find virtually every piece of Republican dogma in action in third world nations. The question is why people buy into that. Is that really where we want to go?

  • k l m on January 18, 2012 11:46 AM:

    I can't help but see a strange connection here. Make 'em work and arrest them for acting like kids. Great win/win for cost cutting and raising revenues.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jan/09/texas-police-schools?INTCMP=SRCH

  • zandru on January 18, 2012 11:50 AM:

    Bogus "Obesity" claim

    "Work" is not "exercise", even though it may leave one feeling exhausted at the end of the day. Claiming kids need to be scrubbing out toilets, wielding chainsaws that are half their own weight, and I guess ultimately pickin' cotton in them fields, so they'll slim down is absurd, moronic and insulting.

    If you look at the adults who scrub out toilets, operate chain saws and other heavy machinery, etc, you will find they're generally even heftier than your average Amurkin.

  • Hedda Peraz on January 18, 2012 11:52 AM:

    When I was a gal rickets and scurvy prevent childhood obesity, and only the rich were fat.
    Now anyone can look like President Taft. Proof that Free Enterprise is working quite well, thank you.

  • Anonymous on January 18, 2012 12:01 PM:

    I agree kids shouldn't be allowed around hazardous chemicals, and they shouldn't be exploited by bean counter corporate executives running giant agribusiness operations, but Grassley is an agricultural state senator. If the administration wants to win they have to explain exactly why these rules don't impact how family farms operate. What does Vilsack have to say about the rules?

    By the way you all realize farming is among the most dangerous of occupations in the best of circumstances.

    In my family we try to send our kids to their cousins farms and ranches to work during a summer or two when they are around 12-14 years of age. They generally come back better than they left. That is why I am a little sensitive about this post.

  • Goldilocks on January 18, 2012 12:15 PM:

    The recent pandemic of childhood obesity in America is mainly due to the increased use of growth hormones in meat production. Putting children to work on such farms would seem an odd way to solve the problem.

  • Ron Byers on January 18, 2012 12:17 PM:

    I am anonymous again.

    Maybe captcha should go on strike

  • DAY on January 18, 2012 12:22 PM:

    When I was a kid in the 50's "chores" were the norm for city kids and country folk alike.

    On the farm the little ones gathered eggs and pulled weeds in the garden, and the bigger ones helped with washday (girls) and slopped the hogs (boys).

    In the city snow was shoveled, lawns were mowed, ashes were carried from the coal stoker to the curb. Laundry was hung on the line and ironed by you know who.

    There were no fat kids in the 50's.

  • Hmmmmm on January 18, 2012 12:23 PM:

    Two of my male cousins grew up on the family farm (a true family farm) and were driving the tractor, etc. by the time they were 10 (maybe younger). Admittedly they were big for their age (both are 6'-4" as adults). They also cleaned out the pig barn and who knows what else. Their dad, my uncle, did the same as a boy. Fortunately none of them were injured, etc. But that was work. My cousins also went to school, of course, and played school sports such as football and basketball.

    “How can kids be active if they are limited by this law?” Sen. Grassley asks. Has he never heard of "games" kids can "play" for exercise? Like tag, hide and seek, making snowmen and snow forts in the winter, climbing on the jungle gym, shooting hoops, and on and on. Of course Grassley is viewing "active" through his own world view, but that was an absurd comment.

    BTW kids can participate in 4-H without living on a farm. My "citified" niece and nephew are active in 4-H in dog obedience and target shooting. Not much exercise there, Sen. Grassley, so they participate in school sports, too.

    But all that aside, kids should not be exposed to dangerous equipment, pesticides, etc., especially when it doesn't directly affect their family. I'm with the DOL on this one.

  • RalfW on January 18, 2012 12:31 PM:

    I find it interesting that, as it happens this bloggy moment, the Washington Monthly story "Is Obama Playing Fair with Recess Appointments" is highlighted just to the right of the end of this very post about child labor and Republicans.

    Y'know, as long as elements of the left are worried about Obama "playing fair" in the insider D.C> power game, and the GOP is aggressively working it's butt off to see the second coming of Charles Dickens, we have a serious disconnect.

    The GOP doesn't give a crap, ever, about fair. Oh, they whine like widdle babies for their milk if they think the media has been unfair to them, but that's a tactic, not a philosophy.

    Progressives and moderates have to organize powerfully and forcefully to turn back this latest of many, many attempts by "conservatives" to return to the extremely tilted world of haves and have nots.

    The don't care if things are fair, they care if they have all the power and all the money. All of it. Extracting child labor at very low wages is exactly what they want, morality be damned.

    It is unfathomable how warped the religious right has become to favor the party of abusing children, kicking the poor in the teeth, and swaddling the rich in the comforting ermine of the "prosperity gospel."

  • chi res on January 18, 2012 12:42 PM:

    I don't know anything about the proposed regs... Don't give me any crap about exploiting kids unless you know something about the regulations

    So... you're the only one allowed to not know anything about the regulations and still give crap?

  • A Warren on January 18, 2012 12:49 PM:

    Well, in order to keep up with rising costs of maintaining a middle class lifestyle in the wake of stagnet wages, many women went to work in paying jobs. Now that is not enough.
    Rather than increase wages, we will just add another family member to the work rolls to help pay for everything. Problem Solved.

  • jjm on January 18, 2012 12:57 PM:

    All this reminds us that the heart and soul of the GOP is now the wholesale embrace of ante-bellum Southern values. While a lot of the South has evolved there seems to be the ideological ghost of its deepest dreams now spread throughout the USA.

    And at the very heart of that ideology is that labor must be free: that slaves are the fulcrum of the whole system.

    Tell me otherwise, if you can. That is the only logical conclusion one can possibly come to.

  • tamiasmin on January 18, 2012 2:17 PM:

    Those darn eight-year-olds are so obese these days, it's getting hard to find one who can go up a chimney and sweep it.

  • g on January 18, 2012 2:26 PM:

    When I was a kid in the 50's "chores" were the norm for city kids and country folk alike.

    On the farm the little ones gathered eggs and pulled weeds in the garden, and the bigger ones helped with washday (girls) and slopped the hogs (boys).

    In the city snow was shoveled, lawns were mowed, ashes were carried from the coal stoker to the curb. Laundry was hung on the line and ironed by you know who.

    There were no fat kids in the 50's.

    And black folks knew their place and weren't uppity, women wore gloves and hats, and everything was in a peculiar shade of black, grey and white. Because this is a fantasy from television.

  • CDW on January 18, 2012 2:32 PM:

    This is going to be unpopular, I imagine, but family farms should not be included in child labor laws. I have to agree with the conservatives there. There should be warnings on fertilizer and other chemicals, but the decisions about children handling them should be left to families.

  • filkertom on January 18, 2012 3:13 PM:

    The counter-arguments seem to be avoiding the elephant in the room: Kids doing chores around Auntie Em and Uncle Henry's place, or even around the Waltons' place, is not the same as children doing the jobs of adults on a modern farm.

  • sparky on January 18, 2012 4:10 PM:

    I don't think this regulation is intended to in any way regulate what a farm kid does on the family farm. It appears to be placing limitations on what type of labor kids can be hired to do on someone else's farm. The only way I can imagine that there are 400,000 children (under 16) involved in farm labor is if the migrant (can you say illegal) work force is being included. I wonder if someone will try to include lawnmowers in the list of forbidden power driven equipment; surely no one is that dumb. Having said that i see no real problem with limiting their access to chain saws, stump grinders, and hay baling equipment and anything else that requires a little judgment in its operation. Look for Fox news to be ranting about this one.

  • David in Nashville on January 18, 2012 4:14 PM:

    I find it odd, to say the least, that the title of this post is "Leave Child Labor Laws Alone," when it's actually Sen. Grassley who's demanding that child labor laws be left alone, and you who are demanding that they be changed. This country has never developed the sort of anti-child labor consensus that you and your commentators assume; child labor laws are designed to regulate child *employment,* not labor per se. It's always been legal for a child to work for her parents; and "chores" on the farm have always included things like operating machinery and dealing with sometimes ornery livestock. Accordingly, it's my understanding that the new regulations would not apply to children working with their parents on farms owned by their parents. Given the hazardous nature of modern agricultural employment to children, revised regulations are definitely needed. But the point here is that these regulations would produce complex changes in rural society. The notion that resistance to those changes is somehow "Dickensian" or represents Gingrich-style reactionary thinking is partly true, but not altogether.

  • Doug on January 18, 2012 8:04 PM:

    "The proposed rules would forbid children younger than 16 from working with pesticides, timber operations, handling 'power-driven equipment', or contributing to the 'cultivation, harvesting and curing of tobacco'." Marie Diamond quoted by Steve Benen.

    With the possible exception of "handling power-driven equipment", I fail to see how this would affect ANY family farm. I'm presuming that tractors would be counted as "power-driven equipment", but even there the limiting their operation by under-16s would only bring that into conformity with the general rule of not allowing teens to drive until they are 16 (or older, nowadays).
    Grassley isn't worried about children on "family farms" as his statement clearly shows: "Kids won't be able to help on farms not owned by their parents." I have news for Sen. Grassley, kids don't "help" on farms other than their parent's, they WORK, and for that work, they get paid. Thus falling under the purview of the Dept. of Labor.
    One would think the good Senator would have something better to whine about, but then, he IS a Republican...

  • PEA on January 18, 2012 9:38 PM:

    A couple of ways child labor in general pays off in the GOP POV: adult workers are less secure about their jobs when children who can be paid less are eligible for those jobs (including migrant farm jobs), and thus more downward pressure on adult wages and adult (independent or union) bargaining power. In addition, if children can work, they can contribute some money to the family, thus helping them maintain the semblance of a middle class existence even while it takes more and more combined family time and effort to maintain that same economic level (just as the increase in women working in the past few decades hid for awhile the fact that wages were not increasing for the middle class and common folks were actually getting a smaller piece of the pie).

  • Sarah on January 23, 2012 1:28 PM:

    It's interesting that you left out the only parts of the proposal which the actual farmers are against:
    1. not allowing youth to work with animals
    2. not allowing a child 15 or younger to climb ladders taller than 6'
    3. not allowing youth under 16 to use electronics (including GPS) while operating machinery
    4. not allowing younger children to operate machinery that doesn't require any kind of license to drive
    etc, etc...

    Nice. You're as bad as they are--spin, spin, spin.

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