Child labor as a Factor in the Increase of Pauperism, October 4, 1903


Child Labor as a Factor In The Increase of Pauperism

Children Unfitted for Larger Tasks When Manhood and Womanhood is Reached, and in Many Cases Parents Willingly Become Dependent Upon Their Offspring.


EACH age has of course its own temptations, and above all its own peculiar industrial temptations. When we ask why it is that child labor has been given to us to discuss and to rectify rather than to the people who lived before us, we need only remember that for the first time in industrial history the labor of the little child has in many industries become as valuable as that of a man or woman. The old-fashioned weaver was obliged to possess skill and enough strength to pull his beam back and forth. With the invention of machinery the need of skill has been eliminated from many processes, and with the application of steam and electricity strength has also been largely eliminated, so that a little child may mend the thread in a textile mill almost as well and, in some respects, better than a strong and clumsy adult. This is true of many other industries, until it has come about that we are tempted as never before to use the labor of little children and that the temptation to exploit premature labor is peculiar to this industrial epoch.

What, then, are we doing about it? How deeply are we concerned that this labor shall not result to the detriment of the child, and what excuses are we making to ourselves for thus prematurely using up the strength of a child? Of course, it is always difficult to see the wrong in a familiar thing, and it is a test of moral insight to be able to see that an affair of familiar intercourse and daily living may also be wrong. I have taken a Chicago street car on a Winter's night in December at 10 o'clock when dozens of little girls who have worked in the department stores all day are also boarding the cars. I know, as many others do, that these children will not get into their beds much before midnight, and that they will have to be up again early in the morning to go to their daily work. And yet I take my car almost placidly -- I am happy to say not quite placidly -- because I have seen it many times. Almost every day at 6 o'clock I see certain factories pouring out a stream of men and women and boys and girls. The boys and girls have a peculiar hue, a color so distinctive that any one meeting them on the street even on Sunday in their best clothes and mixed up with other children who go to school and play out of doors can distinguish almost in an instant the children working in factories. There is also on their faces a something indescribable, a premature anxiety and sense of responsibility which we should declare pathetic if we were not used to it.


How far are we responsible when we allow custom to blind our eyes to the things that are wrong, and what excuses do we make for ourselves? The sentimental excuse is the one we use most frequently in the North. It is said that the labor of these little children is needed for the support of widowed mothers. Some of us are sure that the widowed mother argument has been seriously overworked. In every community there can only be a certain number of widowed mothers unless some plague has carried off the men in the prime of life. Out of that number of widows only another certain number will be absolutely impecunious, for if the community is prosperous some of the workingmen by benefit societies and insurances will have made some little provision for their families. Out of that certain number of impecunious widows only a few will have children between the ages of ten and fourteen, in which short space of time the temptation to the premature use of children's labor always lies.

In a certain manufacturing town it was discovered that 3,600 children on the school census roll were not to be found in the schools. We have a much larger number than that in Chicago; according to our school census we lose 11,000 between the first and second grades. In this particular manufacturing town it was suggested that the children be looked up and the number of those who were supporting widowed mothers be verified. Out of the 3,600 children it was found that 1,100 were legitimately out of the public schools, i.e., that they had moved out of the district, that they were ill, that they were attending private institutions, or that they were legally at work. That left 2,500 to be accounted for, and out of those it was found that exactly 66 were the children of widows. Out of the 66 only 23 were in any real sense contributing to the support of their mothers. The other mothers had older children or other means of support, so that only 23 were in any way absolutely dependent on the wages of those children, which wages could be only supplementary at best. It was certainly a great deal better for the community, for the widows and the children, that grown-up, vigorous people should take care of these 23 widows for a few years, until the children were old enough to go out to work and bring in a decent wage with which to support the family, and that the children should be saved from the breakdown which premature labor so often implies.

When children are thus broken down it means that we do not stand up to the obligations which belong to our own time, but insist upon using up the energy which belongs to the future.


What connection do we find between child labor and pauperism? One of the first causes of pauperism is non-employment. Those who are first to lose their places in an industrial crisis are those who have never had sufficient training and who curiously lack strength and vigor. In our municipal lodging house in Chicago it is surprising to find how many tramps are tired to death with monotonous labor and begin to tramp in order to get away from it. This inordinate desire to get away from work seems to be connected with the fact that the men have started to work very early, before they had the physique to stand up to it, or the mental vigor, with which to overcome its difficulties, or the moral stamina which makes a man stick to his work whether he likes it or not. But we cannot demand any of these things from a growing boy. A boy grows restless, his determination breaks down, and he runs away. At least this seems to be true of many of the men who come to the lodging house.

Another cause of pauperism is illness. A potent cause of disease is due to the breaking down of the organs which were subjected to abnormal uses before they were ready to bear it. I recall a tailor for whom the residents of Hull House tried to get medical assistance. He died of the age of thirty-three, and his death certificate bore the record of "premature senility" due to the fact that he had run a sewing machine since he was six years old. It is no figment of the imagination to say that the human system breaks down when it is put to monotonous work before it is ready to stand up to that work, and that general debility and many diseases may be traced to premature labor. No horse trainer would permit his colts to be so broken down.

Then we have the pauperizing effect of child labor on the parents. Many of our European immigrants resent the monotonous petty work of the factory, but their children become adapted to it, and you get the curious result of the parent of the household being more or less dependent upon the earnings of the child. This tends to break down the normal relation between parents and children.

The pauperization of society itself is another serious charge.

When an industry depends upon the labor of boys and girls it takes them at a time when they ought to be at school. The wages paid to them are wages of mere subsistence. In almost all factories the work at which the children are employed leads to no trade. By the time they are old enough to receive adult wages they are often sick of the whole business. Such an industry is parasitic on the future of the community. We recall that when the recruiting officers went into the factory regions of the North of England they found the bulk of the people below the standard in stature required in the English army. They were found specially dwarfed in that part of the country where the third generation recorded in their frames the effects of child labor.

The gravest charge I have to bring against child labor is that it pauperizes the consumers. If I wear a garment which has been made in a sweat shop or a garment for which the maker has not been paid a living wage -- a wage so small that her earnings had to be supplemented by the earnings of her husband and children -- then I am in debt to the woman who made my cloak. I am a pauper, and I permit myself to accept charity from the poorest people of the community. All that can be said against the parasitic character of sweating industries can be said against the parasitic character of child labor, with this difference that the latter robs the assets of the community, it uses up those resources which should have kept industry going on for many years.

We may trace a connection between child labor and pauperism, not only for the child and his own family, bringing on premature old age and laying aside able-bodied men and women in the noontide of their years, but also the grievous charge is true that it pauperizes the community itself. I should also add that it debauches our moral sentiment, it confuses our sense of values, so that we learn to think that a bale of cheap cotton is more to be prized than a child properly nourished, educated, and prepared to take his place in life. Let us stand up to the obligations of our own age. Let us watch that we do not discount the future and cripple the next generation because we were too indolent. I was going to say because we were too dull, to see all that it involves, when we use the labor of little children.