Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Gingrich and Child Labor

My friend and colleague, Eric Edmonds of Dartmouth, takes up the bizarre promotion of child labor by Newt Gingrich in Reuters.  Here is an excerpt:

Republican Presidential frontrunner Newt Gingrich continues to insist that child labor laws in the U.S. are “truly stupid,” that the poor lack good work habits, and that the former would solve the latter. He hasn’t mentioned any specific policy changes, yet it’s clear that he doesn’t like the way things are done now, and that that he thinks America would be better off if kids worked more. If only the economics agreed.
The biggest hole in Gingrich’s plan is a simple one: adding more workers does not create new jobs. With 1,373,000 youths 16 to 19 currently looking for work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, adding even younger children to this pile would likely serve to increase unemployment or reduce unskilled wages further.
The issue is that workers that start unskilled stay unskilled. Especially if their education is suffering as a result. Working children do not learn skills that are going to help them to succeed in today’s technologically advanced global economy. How is learning to be an unskilled laborer at an early age going to help families in the long-run?
It is not. Implicit in Mr. Gingrich’s argument is that the act of working itself teaches some transferable skill that then makes the child laborer a better worker overall. We’ve seen what happens when successive generations of families need their children to work. They are unable to escape poverty.  Some of the best evidence on this comes from Brazil, where, according to two economists’ research, former child laborers are three times more likely to need their own children to work.

The research from Brazil he is referring to is my own conducted with André Portela Souza. We also have research that shows that participants in child labor end up with lower earnings as adults, all else equal. Research that we are working on now is focused on understanding the effect of working while continuing to go to school. Results are preliminary but suggest a significant decline in the how much and how well child laborers learn relative to their peers who do not, even when controlling for other socio-economic disparity.

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