I was a child entrepreneur. I loaded up paints and stencils in my wagon and painted street numbers on curbs. I mowed grass and raked leaves. I babysat. When I was old enough–15, which was also old enough to drive–I sold clothes at a mom and pop store. These pursuits helped me develop a work ethic, a relationship with money, and a BS detector. But they did not cost me my childhood.
Several states, including Arkansas and Ohio, have rolled back laws that prevent employers from hiring children younger than 15, or that limit the number of hours children can work. As the Los Angeles Times noted, these changes, coupled with educational issues born of the pandemic, threaten to create an underclass of young people: lure kids away from school with wages that seem high when they’re 14, and they’ll by working themselves to death by the time they’re 25, and undereducated to the point that they won’t be able to do much about it.
A pragmatist might argue that the spate of laws deregulating child labor simply prevents employers from being penalized for offering children and their families what they want: an opportunity to make money. As a culture, they might claim, we cut off access to a labor because we have sentimentalized what childhood should be like.
However, this might be a case where the government should protect people from themselves. Kids need to be in school. Not merely because they need to be kids, but because without enough education, they can’t be fully functioning adults. What constitutes enlightened policy here? At what age should a kid (or the kid’s family) be able to say, “I’ve had enough school and I want to make money?” How should such laws be enforced?