Economics and Children in Western Societies

David Levine

Gary Cross


Studying the family's organization of production and consumption can only be carried out if one also keeps its reproductive behavior in the same field of vision. For the vast majority of people, for most of the time, the act of balancing "hands" (i.e., production) with "mouths" (i.e., consumption and reproduction) was a precarious act; whether they were peasants, landless proletarians, or artisans, the slightest hint of adversity could destabilize the family unit enough to drive it down into poverty and destitution, from which escape was difficult, if not impossible.

Before 1750 most proletarianization was the result of downward mobility by the landholding peasantry into the ranks of the landless poor; such people became vagrants and migrant workers who frequently ended up as the lumpen-proletariat, the lowest class of worker, which made up a majority of the urban population. After 1750 this trajectory of social decline was supplemented by a massive increase in a new kind of lateral mobility as industries in rural areas experienced

Cranberry Pickers (1910), Lewis Hine. Children began earning money in rural households at an early age. Five-year-old Jennie Capparomi is pictured here alongside adult workers harvesting cranberries in a New Jersey cranberry bog. © .

dramatic growth, sometimes in competition with–but more often as a complement of–factory industrialization. Marginal peasants having little or no land, sometimes called cottagers or dwarf-holders, who together made up a huge proportion of the rural population of northwestern Europe, found that their tenuous hold on the land was terminated when the products of the first phase of the Industrial Revolution destroyed the income supplements they derived from rural proto-industry. In North America, similar processes of downward (and outward) mobility were in evidence in the colonial and early federal towns, but the accessibility of the frontier meant that the day of reckoning could be postponed by starting life over again as pioneers.

The Demographic Revolution

The European population grew from about 65 million in 1500 to around 127.5 million in 1750, reaching almost 300 million in 1900. In North America, the population in 1750 was perhaps 2 million but grew almost exponentially–as a result of massive immigration from Europe as well as the natural increase of the native-born Americans–so that by 1900 there were about 81 million people living from sea to sea north of the Rio Grande. In this demographic revolution, population increased after 1750 in response to falling levels of mortality and gently rising levels of fertility. The mix of factors was by no means homogeneous because in some places the whole population rise was accomplished by rising birth rates while elsewhere it was the result of falling death rates. Of course, in many places it was some combination of the two factors. The rise in FERTILITY RATES was itself remarkable because, all other things being equal, it would be expected that fertility rates would have declined in response to declining mortality. But all other things were not equal.

What is now known as the demographic revolution may have stemmed from declining mortality rates but, like the sorcerer's apprentice, this new state of affairs released uncontrollable forces when unexpected levels of survival of youths and married adults combined with earlier marriage and skyrocketing illegitimacy rates. Thus, more people married, they married at younger ages, and they stayed married longer. Around 1800, perhaps one English child in twelve was born out of wedlock (the comparable figure in 1700 was about one in fifty); in parts of Germany, the rates of illegitimacy were occasionally as high as one in five. This is especially significant to the birth rate, which is itself the product of length of marriage and fertility rates per year of marriage, for even small changes in mortality and birth rates when aggregated and allowed to multiply over several generations have profound implications.

It was within the changing tempo of daily life during the demographic revolution that family formation strategies were affected. The older world of family farming and family-workshop production was not lost for everyone, but the success of the few was predicated on the failure of the many. The majority of that population was forced to migrate–either socially or physically–and to establish wholly new routines. As a consequence, new ways of social life were simultaneously created and abandoned. Cottagers first became wage-earners and then lost their purchase on the land altogether. Furthermore, the value of women's and children's labor was initially enhanced and then radically depreciated. In handicraft cottage industry women and children supplied "hands," but they were subsequently marginalized by the emerging political economy of urban and industrial capitalism. In moving towards the patriarchal breadwinner economy, in which a male household head commanded both economic and moral authority over the family group, these urban wage-earning families were re-creating the social norms of the villages from which they came and in which the peasant patriarchs usually ruled the roost, controlling all women as well as unmarried males. The other side of this process is that the social standing of those who were neither patriarchs nor breadwinners was increasingly jeopardized. While individual families struggled desperately against these larger historical forces, it is only possible to understand their demographic and family formation behavior if we conceive of it as just one of a series of proactive coping maneuvers.

The explosive demographic implications of cottage industrialization were at least as much the result of more frequent marriages, by more people, as of earlier and more fertile ones. So too, the dynamic of rural industrialization permitted married couples to stay together whereas in the earlier social mode of production marriages were constantly being fragmented, and wives and children deserted. The economic base of the marginal peasant family was flimsy because it was subject to cyclical strains, resulting from the impact of war, climate, and the harvest. In this sense, the proletarianized cottagers who formed the backbone of many handicraft industries were able to move into new zones of economic and social freedom that translated into the formation of new families. The preindustrial cottagers, therefore, formed a large population reserve; the growth of rural industries allowed such people to be siphoned out of the rural economy connecting their individual movements with larger population processes. Furthermore, before 1750 delayed marriage and permanent celibacy had acted as a check on population growth but afterwards boom times meant more frequent and earlier marriage as well as a decline of celibacy.

In the preindustrial demographic-economic system of reproduction, about three-fifths of all families were likely to have had an inheriting son while another fifth would have had an inheriting daughter, which meant that about one-fifth of all niches in the landed economy became vacant in each generation. Urbanization, with its filthy environment breeding microorganisms so lethal to babies, partially counterbalanced the global improvements in life expectancy. Overall, however, mortality rates dropped and it is probable that improvements in infant, child, and adult health were especially significant in the rural environment. Married couples remained intact and continued to reproduce for longer periods of time while a higher proportion of children was likely to reach adulthood and themselves marry.

These trends raise some questions, however. Why, when rising life expectancy yielded more survivors, did people produce so many children over and above replacement? How were these additional children to find their way in a world that was already overcrowded? How were new economic niches created? Were such niches in agriculture, industry, or service sectors? The key point to bear in mind in answering these questions is that children were brought into the rural industrial family's productive activities at an early age. In cotton spinning or straw plaiting, girls as young as five or six were working long hours; in nail making, boys of seven or eight were apprenticed to older, stronger workers. Both girls and boys in such rural-industrial households were probably able to cover the cost of their upkeep by the time they reached twelve or thirteen; as older teenagers, they probably made a "profit" for the parents who kept them working in the family enterprise. The economics of child labor–and the early opportunity for independence that came with it–had two important implications: first, it meant that such piece-workers could assemble the wherewithal to marry at a young age even though they had no expectation of inheriting anything of substance, unlike their peasant forebears; and second, it was peculiar insofar as more children were a good thing because a large family would not only change the ratio of "hands to mouths" but it would also extend the period of the family cycle when there would be surplus income from the ratio of producers to consumers.

There were other effects that resulted from shifts in the fertility schedule. The age-pyramid rapidly broadened at its base as enhanced child survival combined with the diminishing chance of marital break-up to swell the lower age groups at the end of the eighteenth century. Generations followed one another more quickly, contributing to the maintenance of high aggregate fertility rates. But something else was at work in maintaining high levels of age-specific fertility at later ages. Marginal groups–such as non-inheriting children–felt the full force of the nonlinear implications of population growth, as over the course of three generations the number of places remained the same but the population increased exponentially. Villagers who were over and above replacement, then, could either wait in the hopes of marrying into a niche or they could emigrate, that is, they could move socially down and physically out of their native land. This second alternative had been the reality presented to generations of their predecessors, for whom non-inheritance meant downward social mobility and demographic death. People who had been unable to inherit a niche in the rural economy were at the end of a family line, which stopped because they were unable to marry and reproduce themselves.

For a time, however, cottage industry was a godsend for these non-inheriting, marginal people; the luckiest ones could even find a way to subsidize the formation of a new household without having to leave their native hearth. The less lucky ones could move to the villages, towns, and cities where rural proto-industries were located; once there, they could set up on their own and support themselves with income derived from their labor, often with common rights to keep livestock and even a small garden. Children were enmeshed in the labor cycle: as young as four or five, they could watch their infant siblings; at six, seven, and eight they could gather dung and firewood, sweep the floor, clean pots and pans and dishes and cutlery, carry water from the well to the hearth, and prepare foodstuffs by chopping and peeling, as well as going out of the cottage on errands. Nine through twelve year olds could spin, knit, mend clothes in need of re-pair, attend the fire in the hearth, wash and dry clothing and bedding, herd and milk domestic animals, watch the poultry, and prepare food for the family meal. By the time these children were on the cusp of what we would call ADOLESCENCE, they were able to cover their costs through a mix of domestic labor and productive work. They were also very nearly "adult equivalents" in that they may have lacked some strength, endurance, and skill but otherwise were capable of a full day's work–and a full day's pay, too. Families engaged in rural industry were therefore less willing to see their teenaged children move away from home and into domestic service. Having paid for the cost of their child's upbringing, parents wanted to benefit from their labor.

During the classic Industrial Revolution (1760–1840) a large segment of the population experienced what have been called "lifetime moves" into the proletariat. And while their actions may have consisted of efforts to retain or recapture individual control over the means of production, they were swimming against a powerful historical current that ultimately pulled most of them down into the ranks of the proletariat. This occurred with astonishing frequency as the population in the countryside thickened. If boom times were like a siphon sucking population out of their rural cottages, then proto-industrial communities were like sponges in their ability to soak up these footloose extras.

But what about those who stayed behind? In what ways were their lives and the lives of their children altered by the outlet provided by rural industrialization? We have already had a glimpse of the rising reproductive levels in rural areas that provided some of the migrants, so it would seem obvious that the opportunity to export non-inheriting children relaxed the pressure on resources the exporting regions would have experienced. Parents with additional non-inheriting children would have had the knowledge that their offspring could relocate. Proto-industry acted not only as a magnet, then, by attracting migrants, but also as an insurance policy in perpetuating the reproduction of those who would become migrants. In addition to absorbing excess people rural industry also provided a source of ready cash for children who would eventually inherit but were in the meanwhile required to wait for an economic niche to open. If only one of the children was to inherit the family farm or household, that does not mean that he or she was unavailable as a source of income while waiting. Indeed, most had usually spent some time as live-in servants or in husbandry during the long wait between PUBERTY and marriage or INHERITANCE. In the pre-industrial period, annual service for cash wages was of enormous importance in the rural economy of England and northwestern Europe. Children from poorer cottage households frequently moved away from home at twelve and worked for ten to fifteen years in the houses of the peasant patriarchs. But in the period of the classic Industrial Revolution this life-cycle system came into direct competition with more attractive, better-paid opportunities in proto-industrial households.

Cash earned in proto-industry was a kind of income transfer to the cottage economy: it gave some the opportunity to buy into an available, vacated economic niche; it gave others money to purchase the consumer products and the capital goods being produced more cheaply in an age of early industrialization; and it provided a valuable infusion of funds into a sector that was notoriously undercapitalized. Rural industrial communities therefore provided both an outlet for and a stimulus to this demographic dynamic in those villages that were the source of migrants. Consequently, the countryside filled up quickly. Dwarf-holdings multiplied, intensive cultivation and new crops, along with a more vigorous division of labor in the service sector, combined to make it possible for the land to fill up to the point of super-saturation. It couldn't continue, and it didn't.

The Change from Rural to Urban Industry

If rural industrialization and population increase were the most prominent features of the countryside in the period after 1750, then deindustrialization and depopulation typified the countryside in the middle half of the nineteenth century, from 1825 to 1875. For children, in particular, this switch from rural-industrial production in the cottage to urban workshops and factories had a profound impact. When the economic prop of child labor was knocked out from under the cottage economy, children were among the first victims of sectorial unemployment. Thus while individual couples desperately tried to protect themselves and their children from the self-defeating cycle of high rates of replacement, the respiration of the countryside inhaled the majority of marginally propertied peasants and exhaled its landless proletarians. Unemployed children were soaked up by the emerging school systems that developed across the North Atlantic world in the middle half of the nineteenth century.

By the mid-nineteenth century the forces holding villagers to their land in England and on the northwest European continent were in tatters. Many tried mightily to stay, but more left out of despair. The second half of the century also witnessed unprecedented levels of migration, both external–millions left Europe, most of them after mid-century–and internal–continental urbanization proceeded furiously to catch up with British levels, where 40 percent of the population lived in six large conurbations by 1881. Together, the demographic revolution and the Industrial Revolution wreaked disaster on an over-stretched peasantry clinging to proto-industry as a supplement to their subdivided holdings by undermining the continued viability of the family farm.

The family production unit's reliance on its own labor power merely served to expose it when the terms of trade swung violently against it in the mid-nineteenth century. The significant if simple and repetitive tasks by which women and children had contributed to the domestic economy of the peasant household–first and most notably in spinning–inexorably declined in the face of competition from specialized, factory-based production. The mechanization of spinning in the last decade of the eighteenth century effectively demolished this cottage industry at the moment when population growth was creating increasing stress on the income of these rural industrial households.

Compounding this decline, the mutuality of the cottage was displaced as women and children were further marginalized in the world of work by the increased emphasis on gender roles and age-stratified activities in the new domestic economy, which replaced the family-based system of cottage production. The ideology of domesticity provided the key entry-point for a new culture of breadwinning respectability as work was reclassified as a masculine endeavor and masculinity, in turn, was judged by the harmony of domestic discipline and its respectable independence. Accordingly, observers of the time worried that the supposed "natural" character of rural, proletarian women was threatened by "masculine" work. Such women would not only be "unsexed" but also socially deranged since they would be indisposed to "a woman's proper duties at home." Powerful as this prescription was, it was irrelevant to the lives of working women, who had never conformed to bourgeois expectations nor given "femininity" priority over family subsistence needs–always their primary focus.

Proletarians' high fertility during the early era of industrialization was incomprehensible to the bourgeoisie, who considered their additional children to be mouths to feed, while the working class considered them to be hands to work and insure the family against the ill-luck of any particular member. Sharing misfortune was a way of coping with the inevitable vicissitudes of daily life; this kind of mutuality found deep resonances in class-specific family formation practices. In England as well as in France, the mutuality of the proletarian family–which stood in contrast to the individuality so prized by social policy makers and reformers–was cited as evidence of its deficient moral education.

The organization of national social systems of education and welfare during the later nineteenth century provided the historical context in which the ongoing revolution in the family was keynoted by the decline in fertility. The average English woman marrying in the 1860s had 6.16 children; her daughters, marrying in the 1890s, had an average of 4.13 children; her granddaughters, marrying in the 1920s, had on average 2.31 children. The decline of marital fertility was both an innovation and an adjustment; it not only responded to macro-level changes in social organization but also represented one of the primary ways in which individual men and women acted to make their own history. Not only were the numbers of children dropping dramatically but the period of the family cycle devoted to child raising was likewise abridged. Some demographers have explained this phenomenon in terms of a shift from "quantity to quality" in relation to the time, energy, and resources devoted to each individual child; but something even greater was at work: the family had been deindustrialized and children had been unemployed. The modern family was built on a very different set of priorities from its predecessors and the experience of childhood was intimately affected by this transition to privacy, domesticity, and, above all, child-centeredness.

See also: Child Labor in the West; European Industrialization; Family Patterns; Work and Poverty.


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Throughout the twentieth century, children's roles in providing labor and income for families decreased while their functions as consumers increased, leading to dramatic changes in their relations with parents. This trend coincided with what scholars call the family consumer economy–the organization of the nuclear family around purchasing and using market commodities–which emerged in various forms in economically advanced regions of the world.

The Reduction of Children's Work Load

Several factors created this new family setting: the introduction of electrification, central heating, and indoor plumbing to the home, a process which began around 1890 but was not completed until after 1950, all reduced the traditional chores of children (hauling water, helping with hand laundry, and carrying wood, for example). The gradual replacement of home-preserved and kitchen-prepared foods with canned, packaged, and refrigerated goods similarly lessened the need for children's domestic labor. So did the process of family migration from rural farms to cities, which eliminated chores such as caring for poultry, horses, and cattle, and tending gardens. Thus, by one estimate, at the end of the twentieth century children did four to six hours of domestic work per week compared to the same number of hours per day in 1900. Paralleling these economic and technological trends was a substantial reduction of fertility and thus of the number of babies and toddlers requiring care from older children.

While the need for children's manual labor in support of the family declined to token amounts, technological and social changes outside the home reduced the demand for children's wage labor. Mechanization had reduced the need for child workers as early as the mid-nineteenth century in textile factories. Improved communications networks (telephones and home newspaper delivery, for example) diminished the demand for errand boys and newsboys by the 1920s. The decline in the demand for domestic servants in the early twentieth century equally reduced the need for child assistants to paid house cleaners and cooks. Increased wages, especially for fathers, contributed also to the decline in parents' expectation that their offspring contribute wage income to the household budget.

Children's school work roughly replaced the time they had formerly devoted to domestic chores and paid work. In 1900, children seldom attended school after twelve or fourteen years of age and, even before the teen years, parents frequently withdrew them from school to help out the family with wages or work. After World War I, school-leaving was gradually pushed into the teens, coming first to urban and then to rural children after World War II. Leading these trends were urban and middle-class families. Adults, especially in the working classes (as well as employers in child-dependent industries), resisted compulsory schooling and legal restrictions on the age at which children could enter the workforce. Fears of child idleness prevented successful legislation against child labor until 1938 in the United States. Still, the need for more skilled workers and, even more, long-term economic trends reducing the jobs available for children encouraged parental acceptance of extended schooling by mid-century.

The Changing Role of the Family

All this increased the time required to care for and nurture children and extended the years of childhood economic dependency into the teens and even beyond. Not only did children remain in the home until full maturity, but adults' daily interaction with them increased insofar as the family had become primarily an institution that socialized future workers and met their increasingly complex consumer needs. As a result, parents had a reduced incentive to bear large families, leading to the two- or three-child family of the twentieth century instead of the four-to six-child family of the nineteenth century. Because higher income and educational expectations over the century raised these time and money commitments, parents had increased incentives to bear fewer children. With the striking increase in the rate of married women in the workforce (around 60 percent by the end of the century in many economically advanced countries, compared to 10 percent to 30 percent in 1900), married women had to weigh the cost of bearing and raising children in terms of lost income when children required their leaving the workforce (and expenditures in raising them in a consumer economy) against any psychic benefits of children in the family. By the end of the century, it was estimated that the cost of raising an American child ranged from $410,000 to $1,500,000 (rising with family income). Even though all children's education contributes indirectly to the well-being of all adults, the shift of children's time toward education means that the young seldom pay back in labor and income the effort and money expended on them by their parents. Thus the traditional reciprocity between generations at the personal level has largely disappeared.

Another long-term effect was for mothers to enter the workforce in place of older children. This decision was motivated both by the shorter span of total years that young children were in the home and even more by the perceived need for mothers to contribute income to support the long-term costs of children (e.g., for further training, especially university) instead of children financially supporting their families of origin. This transformed older forms of reciprocity between parents and children, dramatically reducing the expectation that older children provide labor and income to parents in compensation for the parents' investment of time and money in children's early upbringing. Instead offspring gave back, not to their parents, but to the next generation of children, producing the contemporary pattern of one-way sacrifice, or staggered reciprocity.

This new economic relationship between parents and children, which placed such a large burden on parents, was in part sustained by a shift in the rationale for bearing and raising children. No longer could children be understood as economic assets or investments. Instead, they became emotionally priceless treasures, valued for their capacity to bring happiness into the home and for representing life beyond the market and work. Once parents widely accepted the doctrine of the priceless child (as it trickled down from the affluent), they could no longer expect their children to spend substantial time on domestic chores or earn money for family (as opposed to personal) use. The good parent could spend on the child but not expect the child to work for money beyond token amounts.

Family and Children as Consumers

Economically speaking, children became primarily recipients and agents of family consumer spending. Increasingly, most family goods and services were purchased rather than produced at home. As family incomes rose, the range of consumer goods, and especially symbolic or psychic goods, increased as well. By 1900, advertising appealed to parental concerns about protecting the health and enhancing the future opportunities and status of their offspring. New products, from appropriately sized furniture and clothing to baby cleaning and feeding products, were designed for parents eager to accommodate their children's perceived needs. Middle-class parents especially bought educational TOYS, backyard play sets, and uplifting magazines in the hope of giving their children the character and intellectual training necessary to prevail in competitive schools and later the business world. From the 1910s, child-care experts, who were especially influential in Britain and the United States, began advocating that children be given weekly money ALLOWANCES to train them in the arts of consuming. The allowance was intended to be educational, substituting training in well-considered consumption and money management for the older lessons in hard work and thrift.

While the allowance gave parents indirect influence and control over their children's decisions, the practice also affirmed CHILDREN'S RIGHTS to their own desires and to participate in the CONSUMER CULTURE. The child was increasingly expected neither to contribute money to the family nor to save for the future, but to use her or his earnings for personal gratification and self-expression. Moreover, from early in the twentieth century, children gained influence over family consumer decisions, especially in progressive, middle-class families. In the United States, ADVERTISING appealed to children's desires in the selection of foods, toiletries, and clothing, and in the 1930s merchandisers used premiums directed toward children to increase sales.

Deeper psychological motivations induced adults to bestow non-utilitarian goods on their offspring. In part, this was a form of vicarious consumption–adults enjoying spending, and the status that it brought, through purchases for their children. Starting with the mid-Victorian middle class, parents recognized that their wealth and domestic comfort allowed their children a less regimented growing up than they had experienced. As a result, childhood became more playful and involved more celebrations of fantasy. This trend culminated in the early twentieth century with a great upsurge of new toys, DOLLS, games, and fads designed for children or passed on to them. To a degree, spending on these goods was a substitute for older customs of transferring skills. Gifts of CONSTRUCTION TOYS and miniature TOY SOLDIERS "prepared" children by inviting them to imagine themselves as engineers or military leaders. Presents of baby dolls were substitutes for the real care of younger siblings (increasingly absent from smaller families) and preparation for later parenting. Yet the trend was gradually toward nonutilitarian spending on toys, sweets, and entertainment, which celebrated childhood as an emotional and expressive world apart from the care and competition of adult life. Beginning with the international TEDDY BEAR craze in 1907 and the play PETER PAN in 1904, toys and entertainment gave children permission to enjoy a playful, imaginative world. Although the hardships of the Depression and World War II reduced family discretionary spending on children's goods, merchandisers continued to appeal to parents' desire to please offspring with a widening range of toys, MOVIES, and other fantasy products. DISNEY, for example, not only distributed his cartoons globally from the early 1930s on, but also licensed products based on his characters.

Spending on children increased dramatically in the second half of the twentieth century, especially as Europe and JAPAN became affluent. In 1999, four-through twelve-year olds spent $11 billion and teenagers spent $94 billion in the United States. And while a survey found shopping the favorite activity of 55 percent of American children from seven through twelve years of age, the percentage for children in other advanced consumer societies was also high: 47 percent in Japan and 37 percent in Germany. This consumption prompted oft-repeated fears that children were being spoiled by gifts that contributed little toward enhancing their life chances or developmental needs. Yet adults tolerated this form of fantasy consumption because it gave them permission to share it with their children, whatever their own guilt about excessive consumption might be, and it met other emotional needs.

Much of this type of spending on children took place during holidays, especially Christmas and BIRTHDAYS. The old potlatches of extravagance that had formerly taken place around community celebrations increasingly were focused on children. This trend was accelerated after World War II with the family vacation. The opening of Disneyland in 1955, Disney World in 1971, and sister sites in Tokyo in 1983 and Paris in 1992, was only a small part of this growing accommodation of children on VACATIONS.

At the same time, however, children's consumer desires were never controlled by parents. From the beginning of the century, makers of cheap fiction, films, candy, novelties, and playthings found ways to market directly to children, despite their lack of significant pocket money. With the development of peer groups on neighborhood streets and, with the lengthening of school years, in school and at extracurricular events, parental authority declined. In the United States, merchandisers of children's goods began advertising directly to children in the mid-1950s on television. In many other countries, however, restrictions on commercial TELEVISION–and in Scandinavia outright prohibitions–limited this trend. Everywhere, children used their "pester power," the income they accumulated from gifts during holiday potlatches, their allowances, and increasingly their own wages from part-time work to gain access to the children's consumer market.

In the family consumer economy children have a reduced role in contributing to the material and social well-being of their families. Parents, however, have accepted this change in the hopes that schoolwork will provide their offspring with skills that will help them establish successful family consumer economies in the future. Gifts have become the means for parents to share and communicate with their children in a culture where older transfers of skill and even religious and ethnic values have declined. At the same time, consumer goods have become crucial in the formation of children's identity, giving them material expressions of their growing independence from parents and markers of their roles and participation in peer groups. As a result, modern children in affluent families may also become separate from parents and siblings through their pursuit of consumer goods. Because parents expect that bestowing gifts on their offspring will create bonds across the generations, children's consumer culture frequently frustrates adults insofar as it is alien to their memories of childhood and their expectations for their children's futures.

See also: Child Labor in Developing Countries; Child Labor in the West; .


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