Jewish World ReviewJune 3, 1999 /19 Sivan 5759
Childish labor laws
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THERE WAS A CERTAIN IRONY in a recent news story about the government cracking down on Sears because the department store chain was accused of having hired some workers who were not quite old enough to be working, according to the child labor laws.
Richard Sears, who founded the company, was younger than these workers when he began working. So was Aaron
Montgomery Ward. An even younger worker was James Cash Penney, Jr., founder of the chain of stores bearing his name.
When J. C. Penney was an eight-year-old boy growing up on a family farm, his father told him that he was now old
enough to buy his own clothes. Moreover, neither his parents nor his older siblings would tell him how to get the money. He
had to figure that out for himself, as the older children had had to do before him. With a hole in his shoe, he had a special
incentive to go find some work to do.
These department store magnates were not unique in starting to work at an early age. John Jacob Astor, who would
eventually become the richest man in America, left home and began working at lowly jobs as a teenager. So did future Wall
Street financier Jay Gould, future steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, future oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, future founder of
the American automobile industry Henry Ford and future radio pioneer David Sarnoff, who created RCA and NBC.
if our wonderfully compassionate and ever zealous social crusaders had been around then and had managed to put a stop to
this child labor? Would these energetic young fellows have been diverted into midnight basketball or perhaps gone into the
underground economy and possibly crime?
If they had ended up in jail or on welfare or on drugs, the social crusaders would undoubtedly have come to their rescue
with half-way houses or other programs that would have made them wards of the state. Meanwhile, the social crusaders
would feel good about themselves because of all the benefits they were showering on the less fortunate with the taxpayers'
Do-gooders are not the only people with a vested interest in restrictive child labor laws. Labor unions have always
supported and promoted laws that keep young people out of the work force, where they would otherwise compete for jobs
with the unions' own members. Since these young people have to be warehoused someplace while they are kept idle, unions
have also been big supporters of compulsory attendance laws that keep teenagers in school, even when they are learning
nothing except irresponsibility and self-indulgent mischief-making.
The education establishment itself has of course been all in favor of keeping teenagers in school long past the point
where it is accomplishing nothing, except providing jobs for teachers and administrators. Those jobs are not a small thing, as
far as the National Education Association is concerned. And the NEA, with its millions of dollars in campaign contributions, is
no small thing as far as the politicians are concerned.
At one time, child labor laws were used to stop youngsters whose ages had not yet reached double digits from working
in exhausting and dangerous factories and mines. Today, they are used to keep big healthy teenagers from handling pieces of
paper in air-conditioned offices.
Education is of course important. But, like many other things that are important, how much of it makes sense varies from
person to person, as well as according to circumstances. Not everyone should continue on to get a Ph.D. and then receive a
The point along the way at which it makes sense to stop cannot be determined by simply saying that education is a
Good Thing or by calling people "drop-outs" when they decide that they have had enough before third parties want to turn
them loose. Much of what is called education is glorified baby-sitting, producing little more than artificially extended
The stringency of today's compulsory attendance laws and child labor laws prevents many young people from getting
the kind of maturity that can only be found in work and in personal responsibility. If nothing else, many teenagers need to get
out of their adolescent subculture and into an environment where they can draw upon the experience of adults around them,
instead of absorbing the fads of similarly immature
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©1999, Creators Syndicate