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These 11 States Want to Make Children the New Underclass

By Chris Revelle | Politics | April 18, 2023 |

By Chris Revelle | Politics | April 18, 2023 |


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Iowa, Ohio, Minnesota, Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, South Dakota, and Wisconsin — what do these 11 states have in common? They’re all rolling back child labor laws. Isn’t this march backward into our most ignorant and oppressive eras super fun?

Yes, we’ve now moved beyond “nobody wants to work” as the hot false narrative du jour to cover for how corporate profits are at a record high without a meaningful increase in pay and yet also tons of lay-offs. Instead of setting aside capitalistic myths of a workforce that simply doesn’t want to work despite a 3.5% unemployment rate, and instead of making any meaningful, material improvements to the pay, benefits, or working life of the average worker, we’re taking this thin idea and running with it: if no one wants to work, we’ll just make kids do it!

It’s not a terrible shock that in the world where we end the federal free lunch program and staunchly refuse any change in our pro-gun laws, no matter how many schools are shot up, that we also decide to put children as young as 12 into factories and on construction sites for night shifts as long as 6 hours. These are kids who need to be in school the next day. If you’re working the night shift in 6th grade, when are you doing your homework? When are you reading? And even their education aside, when are they getting the chance to be kids? To hang out, to watch TV, to chat about TikTok? Are we really in a place where a kid’s education and childhood experiences are less important than getting them to serve the economy ASAP?

Of course we are! We’re the country that would rather pick on trans teens than fix any of the material or existential threats to students. Speaking as a former middle school teacher, we have a deeply cavalier national attitude about education in which it’s nothing more than a series of credentials for a future job. And deciding that a 12-year-old is worth more as a laborer than as a student is reflective of that attitude. When you live in the economy of late capitalism, you know exactly what comes first.

It’s not just the American student that America looks to exploit. On last night’s Last Week Tonight, John Oliver describes how the farming system of America roughly equates to modern-day slavery in which immigrants of all legal status are pressed into low-paying-if-at-all work hand-picking produce and how labor reforms of the past have specifically excluded farmwork to allow this slavery to continue. Children as young as 10 are working manual labor jobs without, in many cases, limits to how long they can work, meaning the fruits and vegetables we think nothing of buying at the store were likely picked by a child during a 12-hour shift. We exist off the unseen and unacknowledged labor of immigrants and children.

There is nothing normal about this. We had, until the past few years, hit a point where student employment rates were dropping, and this was seen as a good thing. It means kids are staying in school for longer! Add to the list that children should not have to fight for the right to go to school and to be a kid. It’s on us as the adults in this situation to make a better world for them.

Chris Revelle is a chatterbox with a lot of thoughts about media and can be heard shrieking about them on the podcast Why Did We Watch This?