This Labor Day, while we commemorate the movement that brought us workplace safety standards, the minimum wage, weekends and much more, we must also reflect on today’s labor practices and standards and their impact on children, youth, and their families. Amid the rise in unionizing efforts across the country, President Biden’s executive orders examining systemic disparities for different races and genders, and election of pro-union candidates, it’s easy to think that worker power, and more broadly, humane practices in the workplace, are here to stay.
Unfortunately, several alarming trends indicate otherwise. Multiple states are easing child labor laws, income inequality across industries persists despite increased investments into the workforce, and unpaid caregiving is still massively undervalued in the United States. We have to better understand what has fueled these scenarios that have caused inequities so we can better advance the cause of the labor movement on the whole. Then, we can create legislation and programs that ensure greater socioeconomic outcomes for children, youth, and their families for the future.
States are easing child labor laws
Many lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle view expanding access to job opportunities for youth, ages 14 to 17, as a pathway out of poverty. However, child wellbeing experts disagree. While paid summer jobs, internships, and skills development programs can be beneficial, extensive child labor prevents physical, intellectual, and emotional development. Furthermore, it can interfere with learning and expose kids to lifelong trauma. Older youth can benefit from career counseling, but easing labor restrictions disproportionately impacts children in low-income households and Black and Brown communities.
In fact, excessive work hours can negatively affect the health and development of all teens and expose them to hazardous work environments and work-related illnesses. For youth in families experiencing more dire economic circumstances, dropping out of school to work jeopardizes their long-term earnings and employment opportunities.
Federal regulations since the 1930’s, under the Fair Standards in Labor Act (FSLA), have sought to protect children and keep them out of the workforce. But states are easing restrictions that allow children under 18 to work longer and for less in industries well known for their hazardous environments. Not only have child labor violations risen by nearly 300% over the last seven years, but also states like Arkansas, Iowa, New Jersey, and New Hampshire are enacting legislation that will further endanger children from low-income communities that are forced to work due to economic desperation.
Legislators in sixteen states support legalizing some form of child labor in part due to the influence of corporate lobbyists who aim to erode youth labor protections, like
maximum working hours, age of eligibility, and minimum wage for youth. Those same lobbyists have also looked to ease barriers to entry into industries like manufacturing, construction, and agriculture. Children in mixed-status families where members may be undocumented are further vulnerable to being exploited in these jobs. Federal protections are and must remain a floor for workers’ protections. States must build on these efforts, not seek to undermine widely held standards.
Creating support for parents and caregivers
How do we begin work to reduce young people’s exposure to jobs with hazardous working environments? By placing an emphasis on child wellbeing. In addition, we need to build supports for adults in the family so parents and caregivers can have the resources they need to take care of their children.
Gender-based wage disparities especially impact children in these families as women now make up nearly half of all U.S. workers and many serve as the sole heads of their households. Population data shows more than 25% of families with children are led by a working, single mother, and yet women, and Black and Brown women especially, experience higher rates of poverty and inequities in income. This points to a lack of resources, investments in opportunities, and overall support for women and children.
To advance child wellbeing, we must address gender and racial-based wage disparities by ensuring wages are equitable and livable, to help keep families out of poverty. Additionally, congress must not only fully fund programs and services in housing, healthcare access, nutrition, and child care, but also create a universal child allowance to reduce poverty and income instability for families. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro’s American Family Act begins to fulfill this goal by providing a robust, expanded Child Tax Credit of monthly assistance to families. Rep. DeLauro also introduced the Paycheck Fairness Act to explore workplace discrimination to help lift families out of poverty.
Children’s Defense Fund’s 2023 State of America’s Children report found households are becoming increasingly multigenerational, creating a phenomenon of caregiving at all ages. Legislation like Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib’s End Child Poverty Act and Congresswoman Gwen Moore’s Worker Relief and Credit Reform Act address child poverty and unpaid caregiving. They represent a supplementary support for families who may be forced to rely on their children for additional income and support.
A new kind of youth development
The Bureau of Labor Statistics found over 50% of civilian workers required specific preparation in the form of formal education, credentials, and prior work experience to perform their job. How can we prepare youth to be ready for the workforce but ensure their primary focus remains on their wellbeing? Federal and state workforce programs and initiatives must examine the ways in which they build and promote programs for different populations.
We cannot offer career and higher-education counseling for some but only provide trade school routes for others. Since spending increases by school districts are found to improve graduation rates, test scores, and overall earnings for low-income students, states must prioritize funding for public education so all students can have equal opportunities to explore higher education and career options.
We must ask ourselves why we offer youth from low-income households, often from Black, Brown, and immigrant communities, opportunities to attend college as a privilege, while we readily shepherd youth from white, higher-income households into higher education. Why do we invest into programs that offer a pathway to “attainable” careers for some children while we also underinvest in teachers, schools, and educational resources for kids in high-poverty neighborhoods?
Systemic racism, classism, and institutional biases are pervasive and are at the root of our education and economic systems.
For example, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) was created to serve youth who are disconnected from resources. It has relied on extensions through the appropriations process since its expiry in 2020. However, WIOA-funded programs have shown stark racial segregation in the jobs of Black workers take after they have completed their training. While WIOA programs provide opportunities for a large number of people with barriers to employment, we must overhaul faulty systems so they better meet the needs of marginalized communities.
Innovative, youth-informed programs can offer opportunities for young people to build employability and wellbeing through practical experiences and skills. They can also provide entrepreneurship that offers agency and psychosocial support for job seekers.
If we explore how young people view work and how their experiences shape their perspectives, we can help federal and state agencies better create programs that equip youth with adaptable and applicable skills. Congress must reach out to youth in low-income neighborhoods who have lived experiences in homelessness, in the carceral system, in foster care, and other marginalized communities to create legislation beyond what is currently offered. That work will establish initiatives specifically to the benefit of the nation’s youth.
We must act now
The effort to address child and family poverty through meaningful legislation is one step in ensuring children no longer have to shoulder the burden of economic stability for their families. It will allow them to, instead, focus on their wellbeing and education for a brighter future. As a child and youth advocacy organization, Children’s Defense Fund is committed to family economic mobility and working to dismantle systemic barriers that hold kids back from living a life filled with, dignity, hope, and joy.
It is critical to uplift policies that seek to disrupt the cycle of poverty and give agency to workers to demand fair wages and safe working environments. These policies must be grounded in racial justice and equity. In 2020, amid a global pandemic, millions took to the streets to protest police brutality, racial injustice, and the institutions that harm Black and Brown communities. And last week, we commemorated the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom–a historic and ongoing campaign to end inequity in every sector of our lives.
We must honor and build on these efforts as well as the last century of progress made towards uplifting the needs of historically marginalized communities. And we must work together to center and uplift children and youth so we can create fair and just opportunities for all.