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Public Administration and Institutions That Commit Child Abuse or Neglect: Part 5 – Like Slavery and Prostitution, Child Labor Never Goes Out of Style

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
August 25, 2023

This column is the fifth in a series on a painful and disturbing topic: child abuse and neglect. The focus is on the unfolding crisis for U.S. public administration systems dealing with corporations that have become systematic sources of child abuse and neglect (the previous columns: first, second, third, fourth). This column explores the return of state-sanctioned child labor in the purported interest of the American economy. I honestly cannot believe this column is even necessary—to me it is like falling through the “multiverse” into some evil alternative world where children are treated as the means to other’s economic enrichment. I have linked child labor to slavery and prostitution because, always, the three tend to go together resulting in child slaves providing sex against their will. If you open the door to children going into the adult workplace, this is what inevitably is at the end of the hall, along with premature mortality from on-the-job injuries and other unsavory outcomes for the most vulnerable in society.

Within the last year, states such as Arkansas have weakened their regulations that restrict children working in such places as bars and restaurants. I have seen accounts in the press of the owners of these establishments pushing to allow children as young as 14 to work as bartenders. Really, what could go wrong with children handling alcoholic beverages? I mean, why did the Federal Government force the states to raise the drinking age to 21 in the first place? If 14-year-olds can dispense a good whiskey sour, why should we tell them not to enjoy one?

The ostensible justification for weakening protections on child labor is the refrain from business owners that, “they just can’t find anyone to hire.” State governments such as that in Arkansas then go into a frenzy about not allowing crucial business such as bars to fail. But my inner economist knows that under Economics 101 the real problem is wages and benefits. The business owners simply do not want to offer the compensation necessary to attract qualified adult workers. This leads to the single greatest principle of corporate welfare that goes directly against the design of capitalism: that a business owner/investor is entitled to make a level of profit and if factors interfere then the government needs to step in and deliver that profit. Arkansas is a national leader in this regard with, among other things, the lowest minimum wage in the nation. And, if you look around, you will find Arkansas locked in a death match with Mississippi to see which one can win the race to the bottom of the list of states on any factor that deals with the general well-being of workers.

This view about protecting profits, of course, not only is absurd, but, in the minds of most qualified economists, is how you pave the road to Hell with tax dollars. For capitalism to work, investors have to take real risks and face real failure. Anything else is just some form of socialism. This is how an ostensibly pro-free market government in Arkansas comes to resemble that of the Soviet Union circa 1988.

Not only should we be concerned with the well-being of children as young as 14 being pushed into the service industries, we also need to focus on the longer term negative consequences for the country that are well established in prior science. When I was an undergraduate at MIT in the early 1980s, Professor Myron Weiner was working on a book that sharply criticized the government of a country, with which he had a strong established relationship spanning many decades, because that country was not making progress in shutting down child labor and enrolling more children in school. Professor Weiner’s masterwork showed unambiguously that the best way to prevent poverty down the line is to make sure children go to school and not to work.

The country of focus here is India. And that’s where the current political climate surrounding child labor laws has taken the United States: states like Arkansas essentially are saying that their goal is to be more like India. Now I know India is a complex, multi-layered society with 1.4 billion people. I am not appealing to stereotypes. I am referencing the evidence that says that governments in India have had long-term issues with corruption related to pressures from the private sector to not provide workers with protections related to health and safety. Regardless of what Indian governments might claim, Professor Weiner showed that countries do not eliminate child labor as they climb out of poverty; rather, they climb out of poverty when they eliminate child labor. Apparently, Arkansas and other similar states want to climb down into poverty so that bar and restaurant owners can hit their profit targets.

Wow. In terms of public administration and its involvement in U.S. public policy, I really hope the warning from Walt Kelly’s Pogo does not apply here: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Who will hold governments in the United States accountable for energetically and enthusiastically contributing to systemic child abuse and neglect?

Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and is an executive-in-residence at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (available for free here). Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @eadevereux.

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