Work and Poverty

In the late twentieth century it was estimated that up to 250 million children under fourteen were at work across the world. Such figures aroused deep concern, and numerous international organizations and national governments declared their wish to end child work, or, at the very least, to eliminate the most hazardous and exploitative forms of it. Yet the idea that childhood might be a time without work is relatively recent. For most of history most families have seen nothing unusual in expecting their children to contribute to the family economy as soon as they are able: without that contribution the poverty amid which they lived would be deepened.

Children and Poverty

Children have always made up a disproportionate percentage of those categorized as living in poverty. The reason is

The Old Musician (c. 1861–1862), Édouard Manet. Children who found no financial support at home were sometimes forced to wander the streets, begging and stealing in order to survive. .

not hard to find. Children when young cannot be anything other than a cost to a family economy: they need care, shelter, food, and clothing, and cannot begin to make even the smallest contribution until at least age five. And though the eldest child in a family might from that age progressively contribute more and more to a family economy, more children are probably being born. For seventeenth-century England it has been calculated that a family would only begin to get a net gain from having children in the eighteenth year of a marriage; by then there would be a sufficient number of older children who would be contributing positively to the family economy, and the wife's child-bearing years would be over. These elementary facts, well-known through hard experience to the poor, were publicized by B. Seebohm Rown-tree in 1901 in a famous study entitled Poverty: A Study of Town Life. In it he argued that there was a family life cycle. A married couple might start off in relative prosperity, but once the children started arriving the family would enter a trough of poverty, emerging from it only when a sufficient number of the children were earning. Then, when the children left home and the parents' earning potential was reduced, there would be another trough of poverty lasting through old age to death. The good times came when you were a teenager and again when your children were teenagers.

In premodern societies, and in developing societies in the contemporary world, children constitute a much higher proportion of the population than they do in twenty-first-century Western society, but the proportion of them among the poor is even higher. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England about half of those listed as poor were children, a figure identical to Rowntree's findings at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The extent of child poverty is brought home to us by the responses to it by parents, children themselves, and public authorities. In the Western world and in China parents frequently abandoned children–from the medieval period onward, normally in

FOUNDLING hospitals–where their chances of survival were not very great. The illegitimate were much more likely to be abandoned than the legitimate, but especially in hard times, legitimate children were also abandoned in huge numbers. Overall, in mid-nineteenth-century Europe about one hundred thousand babies were abandoned every year, probably about half of them legitimate, by families who felt that their resources could not stretch to take in another dependent member.

Children themselves, finding no sustenance at home, or perhaps orphaned or half-orphaned, sometimes formed gangs. In southern France in the eighteenth century gangs of children roamed the roads, begging and pillaging. In Prussia one-third of all beggars were said to be children. As to the authorities, they were aware, as JOHN LOCKE put it at the end of the seventeenth century, that a man and his wife could not "by their ordinary labor" support more than two children, and as a result many families were impoverished simply because they were "overburdened with children." What could be done for them? Locke thought that parishes ought to set up workhouses where children from three or four years of age could begin to engage in productive labor, normally spinning. The solution, that is, seemed to be to provide work opportunities for children, or, perhaps more accurately, to put children to work with a greater or lesser degree of compulsion. Schemes proliferated to provide employment for children in Schools of Industry, in lace making, and in straw plaiting, all with the aim of structuring the time of children, preventing idleness, inuring children to a life of labor, and increasing family income.

The perception of authorities in the eighteenth century, on the eve of the Industrial Revolution, was that the problem of child poverty was primarily a problem of lack of employment for them. Where children were in the care of philanthropic organizations or of the state it was axiomatic that they should be put to work; they were imported into Leiden in the Netherlands to work in the cloth industry in the seventeenth century; from Germany it was reported that manufacturers in eighteenth-century Potsdam and Berlin relied on children from the orphanage. That children should work as soon as age permitted was taken for granted. Their earnings were crucial to family survival, and perhaps to national economies.

Such a perception of the desirability of child work was not confined to the authorities: it would have been shared by parents and probably by children. Ideally the family itself would constitute a work unit. Where there was land to be worked, the prevailing situation for the vast majority of families in premodern times and in the developing world today, children could be gradually initiated to work for the family: scaring crows off the crops, collecting firewood, helping around the home (which itself might be a productive unit), looking after younger siblings. In sixteenth-century Castile, for example, both boys and girls helped collect firewood, herd livestock, assist with ploughing, collect or destroy aphids or worms on the vines, and rear silkworms. Work of this kind can seem rooted in nature and not far from idyllic, but from a parental point of view there was a set amount of labor which needed to be carried out, and the number and gender of children might match those needs less than perfectly. Extra labor might need to be brought in from outside the family, or conversely, family (i.e., child) labor might be exported to other families. Where, as in England, an economy of peasant holdings had been replaced by one where agricultural laborers were hired by farmers, children might well be surplus to family requirements; in parts of England boys left home at the age of nine and were apprenticed out to farmers until the age of twenty-one. In the pre–Industrial Revolution economy of Europe child work within the family might be the desired norm, but it was not always available.

Early Industrial Society

Household industrial production, commonly known as cottage industry, increased rapidly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and provided an alternative to work in the agricultural economy. There was nothing new about child work in industry. Archaeological evidence from Bonn in Germany, dating back to the early thirteenth century, shows children's fingerprints on pots, indicating children's role in carrying freshly turned pots to drying areas in a business which was exporting to England, Scandinavia, and Poland; there is also evidence from a number of sources of children working in coal mines. What was new in the early modern era was the increase in the number of opportunities for household industrial production where children's usefulness was undeniable. Most of the work was in textiles, with production serving international as well as national and regional markets. In the early eighteenth century in parts of England Daniel Defoe was delighted to find occasional examples of children as young as four apparently earning their keep. Household production of this kind was frequently combined with agricultural work, sometimes on a seasonal basis, sometimes with some family members working on the land while others concentrated on industry. These essentially rural industries provided a much wider range of employment opportunities for children than were available in purely agricultural areas. Indeed, it was an assumption in England as late as the 1830s that where there was local cottage industry children were likely to be employed, whereas in purely agricultural areas child unemployment was to be expected.

In rural industries production might be based on the household, but the labor employed was not always confined to family members. Children might be surplus to the labor requirements of their own family, but could find work in someone else's household. The coming of the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries furthered this process of separating children at work from family and household. Now the new work opportunities were in textile factories, the early ones driven by water-power and so necessarily sited near fast-flowing streams, and perhaps far from any locally available labor. In Britain, the pioneer of this new form of work organization, the child labor came from "pauper apprentices," children who had been left in the care of the Poor Law and were dispatched from London to work in the factories of the Midlands and north of England, where they were often very cruelly treated. By the early nineteenth century steam power began to replace water power, and textile towns grew up in the vicinity of coal supplies. The wages on offer in these factories, higher than those available in agricultural work, attracted families to them, and women and children came to constitute a high proportion of the factory workforces. In Alsace in France in the 1820s one-third or more of the workforce in mills were under sixteen; in Glasgow at much the same time 35.6 percent were under fourteen and 48.3 percent under sixteen. The extent of the use of child labor was dependent much more on the labor strategies of employers than on technology. In mills in northern Massachusetts and in New Hampshire, young women rather than children were preferred, and child labor was rare. Sometimes, but by no means always, family members might work together within a factory. A frequent complaint was that the work opportunities for women and children were at the expense of those offered to adult men who might find themselves, against all tradition, as homemakers.

Child Labor in Industrial Society

The child labor practices of the early Industrial Revolution, both at the time and since, have been widely condemned. Children were taken out of their homes, starting full-time work often before they were ten years of age, and subjected to long hours and unremitting DISCIPLINE; it was hardly surprising that their health was jeopardized. Those who defended the system made three main points: first, children were better able than adults to carry out some of the more delicate work necessary in textile factories or to work their way along narrow seams in coal mines. Second, in a system of national and international competition, cheap child labor was a crucial ingredient for success. Third, factory work had the benefit of preventing children from being idle and protecting them from all the evils that followed from idleness. Advocates of child labor also cast doubt on the statistics about the ill-health of child factory workers and child miners that those who opposed the system so frequently produced. The defenders of child labor were, however, outgunned by those who drew attention to the cruelties inflicted on children and who for the first time in human history began to question whether childhood should be a time for work. Under the influence of a view of childhood proposed by the Romantic poets, in particular William Wordsworth, opponents of child labor in factories and mines argued that childhood should be a time of self-discovery and happiness, in communion with the natural world. Childhood should be extended, and work delayed, for "when labor begins," as an American put it, "… the child ceases to be" (Zelizer, p. 55). The work of children from this perspective was, in a word frequently invoked, "slavery."

Although child work in factories and mines attracted an immense amount of attention it was not, even at the height of the Industrial Revolution, the most common form of child employment. In England and Wales in 1851, for boys aged five to nine, agricultural workers were more than two and a half times as numerous as cotton workers, and for those aged ten to fourteen the disproportion was even greater. For girls aged ten to fourteen the twenty-nine thousand cotton workers were far outnumbered by the fifty thousand domestic servants. In other words, well-entrenched forms of gendered child work–agriculture for boys, domestic service for girls–remained the dominant forms of child work even after half a century and more of industrialization. The same is true in the developing world today: in India in 1981 over 80 percent of child workers were engaged in agriculture.

In the second half of the nineteenth century the industrializing countries passed laws to restrict the employment of children in what had been the cutting-edge industries of the Industrial Revolution. Textiles and coal mining were normally the first to become subject to regulation, followed by many others, such as pottery work and brick making. The legislation raised the permissible age of entry, restricted hours, laid down safety regulations, and sometimes insisted on evidence of schooling. It was a response to the outcry about conditions, combined with a realization by some leading manufacturers that productivity might be impeded rather than enhanced by the use of child workers. At the same time governments sought to strengthen and upgrade legislation compelling children to attend school (in some countries such legislation dated back to the eighteenth century). Both labor legislation and, to a lesser extent, schooling legislation was difficult to enforce, but by the early twentieth century in most industrializing countries, children's work was distinctly part-time up to the time they left school somewhere between the ages of twelve and fourteen. And when they did leave school, except in some distinctive local economies, they were much more likely to find work as messengers, shop assistants, or domestic servants than as factory or mine workers. In effect, the labor market had become segregated by marking out certain types of work as belonging to children, and these were now on the margin of the economy, rather than at its center. The typical child worker would be delivering newspapers or milk, or cleaning, not tending a machine.

Family Economies

In the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries a distinctive family economy linked together urban working-class families in Europe and North America. Adult males were ideally, and normally in practice, the main wage earners; their wives, particularly once children started to be born, rarely worked for wages on a regular basis outside the home; children found waged work as soon as they were able, or as soon as the law allowed, and turned over most of their earnings to their mothers for family use. In Belgium, for example, children were contributing 22 percent of family income in 1853, and 31 percent in 1891. In the United States toward the end of the nineteenth century, by the time the adult male in a family was in his fifties, children were contributing about one-third of the family's income; in Europe, it was rather more: 41 percent. The deep-rooted assumption, inherited from an agricultural economy, was that children should contribute to the family economy as soon as possible. Factory laws and laws enforcing schooling raised the starting age over time, but there is much evidence that children themselves felt proud to be able to start making a contribution to family welfare. Their mothers, the only alternative wage earner in the family, were fully engaged in child rearing, housekeeping, and sometimes bringing in further income through casual work or taking in lodgers. No one could be in any doubt that children's earnings improved a family's economic position, and children who might have continued at school often did not take up the opportunity, aware of the family's need for income.

The majority of working-class children in Western society lived in families whose economies were structured in this way. There were, of course, many differences from country to country and within them; they were most visible in the United States where immigrant and ethnic communities had different traditions and different responses to the changing economic situation. Italian immigrant families in New York, for example, made much more use of child labor than did Jewish immigrants, in part because of traditions in the countries they came from, but perhaps mainly because the earning power of Italian adult males was less than that of Jewish ones: extra income was needed, and children were the obvious source of it. The same argument holds true for Philadelphia in the late nineteenth century: the children of Irish and German immigrant families were more likely than those of native whites to be in the workforce, but this was mainly because the fathers in these families earned less than those of native whites. As the income levels of immigrant families rose the dependence on child labor declined. By the early twentieth century a common white American response to the economic situation was becoming apparent: an increasing emphasis on the desirability that the adult male should be the sole wage earner and that children should be in school. In hard times, for example in the depression of the 1930s, there would be a return to the use of child labor, but legal restrictions on its use meshed with values and norms that made child labor undesirable. The situation for black families was rather different. In Philadelphia, for example, black children were less likely to be employed than immigrant Irish or German children, not because their families were better off, but because of ethnic structuring in the labor market which denied access to blacks. Partly for this reason, partly because black families seem to have placed a higher value on the education of their children than immigrant families, black married women were, in a range of U.S. cities, between four and fifteen times more likely to be employed than immigrant wives. Unlike white communities, whether native or immigrant, black families put the emphasis on mothers rather than children as the key supplementary wage earners.

Street Children

Children in families headed by two adults were the lucky ones. For others–in one-parent families (some 20 percent of English children born in the mid-eighteenth century would lose one parent to death by the age of fifteen), or where one or both parents were economic failures, or where the local economy offered few jobs either to adults or to children–other solutions to earning a living had to be sought, and they were likely to involve leaving home. From Savoy since the sixteenth century children had traveled through France and England as chimney sweeps. In the nineteenth century in poor villages in the Apennines in Italy, families apprenticed their children to padrones who put the children to work on the streets of Paris, London, New York, Moscow, and many other cities to perform with animals or with musical instruments; the children, perhaps as many as six thousand of them at the height of the business in the late 1860s, were expected to earn a set sum for the padrone each day. In the cities in which these Italian children performed, there were already many street children, both those who sought a living from the street, selling goods, performing as acrobats, offering services such as cleaning crossings, and those whose sleeping quarters were under some rough shelter. The former were often from migrant families, and were working to support their families. The same thing could be found in the late twentieth century: in Istanbul the forced migration of Kurds from southeast Turkey led to many children of these families working on the streets selling tissue papers.

Philanthropists and governments were keen to rescue street children for what was seen as a better life, and to remove the scourge of mendicancy from the public gaze. Many such children were sent to institutions. In the United States the 77 private ORPHANAGES of 1851 had increased to 613 by 1880 and to over a thousand by 1900; and if there is one generalization one can confidently make about the inmates of "orphanages" it is that the majority of them were not orphans, but children perceived to be in need of care. Institutionalization was not always the preferred way of "saving" these children; ideally they might be transported to some better environment away from what were seen as corrupting cities. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries eighty thousand British children were "emigrated" to Canada, where they were mostly allocated work on farms. In New York CHARLES LORING BRACE's Children's Aid Society in the second half of the nineteenth century sent out sixty thousand children to farms in New York State and to midwestern states. In the existence of all these schemes to rescue children we can see evidence of the failure of the ideal that all children should be raised in well-functioning families and that local economies should provide suitable work opportunities so that children could contribute to the family economy. Families themselves failed, and local economies did not always provide the kind of work opportunities which were thought suitable: children, in consequence, became mobile, some traveling thousands of miles in search of work, and, whether under the control of a padrone or in the care of a philanthropic society, often had minimal control over their own destinations and destinies.

The Mid-to Late Twentieth Century

Around the middle of the twentieth century in Western society the assumption that children's prime responsibility was to contribute to the family economy as soon as they were able began to be questioned. This was probably largely due to rising living standards which made the child's contribution less crucial. For the good of the family as a whole, investment in a child's education beyond a minimum required level began to make sense. At much the same time married women began to play an increasing role in the workforces of the Western world, thereby providing an income stream which had simply not been available or not tapped until then. But it would be wrong to see this as simply the substitution of adult female wages for children's wages. Within the home itself children were expected to do less and less in terms of chores; their status and ranking within the family rose. The goal of many parents came to be an improvement in the life-chances of their children; the "slaves" now seemed to be the parents, in particular mothers, who catered to their children's needs.

There were indications, however, that this child-centered phase in the history of Western white families was coming to an end by the late twentieth century. Within it the dominant thrust was the segregation of children from the adult world, which was defined, among other criteria, as the world of work. From the 1980s, however, there was accumulating evidence that child labor in the developed as well as in the undeveloped world was on the increase, an outcome of the meshing of the needs of rapidly changing family forms and of the international global economy. Children were working, largely on the margins of the economy and in service industries, in a context where the deregulation of controls on labor was paramount. They were also contributing to the functioning of the household, in part because mothers were now much less likely to see their sole or main function as homemaking. Mothers continued, in addition to paid labor, to contribute the most to homemaking, but, as a Norwegian study showed, girls in particular, but also boys, were more likely than adult men to contribute to housework in the course of a day. Children supported mothers in the functioning of the home.

International Perspectives

In the first half of the twentieth century it was widely hoped and assumed that the Western pattern of a diminution, and perhaps elimination, of children's work would spread to the rest of the world. The International Labor Office (ILO), established in the aftermath of World War I, had assigned to it as one of its tasks "the abolition of child labor," and countries signed conventions which laid down minimum ages for participation in a variety of industries. Colonial powers were under pressure to apply these limitations to their colonies, and appropriate laws appeared on their statute books. There was, it is true, a certain amount of bending of what might be thought desirable within the ILO to local conditions–in Indonesia, for example, restrictions on night work were evaded by redefining night to encompass fewer hours. It is also true that the will to enforce these laws was often lacking. But at an international level, as late as 1973 the ILO set down a norm of fifteen as the minimum age for entry to the labor force, with fourteen for developing countries, and with a recommended target age of sixteen.

The experience of the last quarter of the twentieth century made this look quite unobtainable–and perhaps not even desirable that it should be attained. The GLOBALIZATION of the world economy enabled employers to seek out the cheapest labor markets–and no labor is cheaper than that of children–and the impoverishment of many families in socalled developing countries increased the pressure to make use of all potential family labor. Observers in the 1980s were reporting an increase in child work in countries such as Ghana, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Peru. Concurrent with these international trends, though more muted, was a questioning of the deeply entrenched Western reflex that there is something morally wrong with child work. The focus of international organizations became the control or elimination of the manifestly exploitative forms of child work, whether in terms of the age of the child, the type of work, the contract involved (the bonded labor of children to pay off adult debts received much attention), or the amount of pay, rather than an attempt to stop all child work, and to enforce a segregation of children from the world of production. Advocates began to listen to what child workers themselves said, rather than assuming that all child work was wrong.

These reassessments were accompanied by an ongoing discussion about the cost of children. In a situation where the world population had doubled within a generation, but where the means to control it were available, it was natural to ask why people had children–or did not have them. As we saw at the outset, children are unquestionably a cost to families in their early years, and it may be many years before they can, in economic terms, become a net benefit. Considered as an "investment good," children are a very long-term form of saving. In many developing countries many of them did not survive long enough to become assets, and this might encourage families to have large numbers of children on the assumption that not all of them would live. Other economic factors could encourage people to have children, in particular the assumption in countries where welfare was negligible or nonexistent that children would look after parents in their old age. There might well be a gender preference, normally for boys rather than girls, since boys would be less of a cost (no dowry on marriage) and more of an economic benefit. But the idea that parents had children for economic reasons, in the sense that children would be an economic asset to them, though often expressed, rarely looked plausible. On the contrary, the assumption in nearly all societies, developed and undeveloped, was that the income stream would be from parents to children rather than vice versa. In the betteroff sections of developed countries so much was this so that the selfish act was not to have children at all or to keep their numbers low, since at no time would they contribute to the family economy, and at all ages through to their early or mid-twenties they were likely to be a cost. Although taxation systems could help meet some of those costs, it remained the case that in developed countries children were disproportionately numbered among the poor. The same was true in developing countries, and there family survival dictated an early recourse to the child employment market.

In both undeveloped and developed parts of the world children worked, at least in part, through a desire to have the means to purchase goods for themselves; that appeared to be true for Indonesia as well as for the United States. The existence of a global market producing goods aimed at children and young people was both testimony to that and a reinforcement of it. This fact needs to be seen alongside the profound reassessment of attitudes to child work in the late twentieth century. In these circumstances it became possible to imagine a future in which children who so desired worked for money which would enable them to purchase the goods they wanted or to improve their sense of well-being in other ways. This may be one form the future will take. But anyone who surveyed, on a global scale, the circumstances in which children worked in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries was forced to admit the profound and enduring relationship between poverty and child work: It took different forms in different cultural traditions, but family poverty remained by far the biggest inducement toward child work. Most child workers in the developing world saw as an ideal some combination of work and school, rather than either one or the other, and they accepted the necessity of a contribution to the family economy. That was also the case in most of the centuries of recorded history. Only since the Industrial Revolution encouraged reflection on the experience of children at work in the early nineteenth century has it been possible to envisage a world in which children do not work at all. That legacy left people confused about the morality of child work. What it did not do was to break the relationship between child work and poverty.

See also: Apprenticeship; Child Labor in Developing Countries; Child Labor in the West; Compulsory School Attendance; Economics and Children in Western Societies: From Agriculture to Industry; European Industrialization; Placing Out.


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