Commentary: Don't dilute child labor laws

Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. (Kansas City Star/MCT)
Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. (Kansas City Star/MCT) MCT

This year in Missouri, a legislator proclaimed the state’s child labor restrictions “so over the top” and proposed allowing children of any age to work unlimited hours.

State Sen. Jane Cunningham’s bill created a kerfuffle. She eventually pulled back.

But now comes presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, calling federal child labor laws “truly stupid.” He’s proposing that a first step toward unraveling them would be to put kids from impoverished families to work as janitors in their schools, because then they’d get a sense of what the working lifestyle looks like.

I for one am not opposed to students doing some work in their schools — sweeping up after lunch, for example. A lot of Catholic and private schools allow students to work off part of the costs of their tuitions, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But singling out poor kids and stereotyping their families is what I would call “truly stupid.”

As numerous people have pointed out in the last few weeks, most poor families have at least one working parent. Many of them are holding down the same kinds of jobs that Gingrich would have the kids doing. What, should we lay off parents so that their children can go to work?

Laws restricting child labor have been part of our landscape for decades.

They uphold our national values that children should be treated well, and that education should be paramount. Most parents are grateful for them.

But what at first appeared to be one of those nutty ideas that Missouri lawmakers habitually come up with now looks like a wedge issue to be booted around in state legislatures and in Washington.

At least one member of Congress, Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, has questioned whether federal laws restricting child labor are constitutional.

For some people, child labor laws push a number of hot buttons.

Cunningham, a Republican from St. Louis County, explained during the session that she views restrictions on child labor as an infringement on parents’ rights. They prevent parents from “teaching a work ethic to their children,” she told the St. Louis Beacon.

Some conservatives in the Missouri legislature, where animosity toward public education runs high, despise the provision in state law which requires children age 14 and 15 to obtain signed permits from their schools in order to work.

“Should children not attending public schools have to grovel to public school administrators to obtain a work permit?” a lawmaker asked me recently.

I doubt if they have to grovel. But a homeschooled student would have to walk into a public school and request a permit.

Rolling back child labor laws plays into the mindset that any help to a business is a good thing, no matter how unhealthy the consequences might be.

Allowing children younger than 16 to work late at night would please the operators of fast-food joints, for instance, even though research has shown that long hours on the job and little sleep affect the way students perform in school and ultimately could lead to behavioral and dropout problems.

Businesses would be even more pleased if they could legally pay younger workers a lower wage than everybody else. That very thing — a $5.25-an-hour “training wage” — was proposed in Maine’s legislature this year. It didn’t pass, although lawmakers did vote to allow teenagers to work more hours a week and to work later on school nights.

I look for more such measures to pop up in majority-Republican, business-friendly state legislatures. Proponents will wrap their cause in the mantle of “parents’ rights,” and argue that loosening child labor laws will help struggling families.

But the attacks on child labor protections are anything but family-friendly. They are designed to pull kids, especially poor kids, out of their homes and away from their studies, into workplaces where they will have few rights and little say over their working conditions.

Let’s hope there is enough common sense and good will to beat back these attempts. We will all be much poorer if they succeed.