Child Labor and Pauperism, May 9, 1903

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Destitute Children.



Each age has of course its own temptations, and above all its own peculiar industrial temptations. When we ask why it is that Child Labor has been given to us to discuss and to rectify rather than to the people who lived before us, we need only remember that for the first time in industrial history the labor of the little child has in many industries become as valuable as that of a man or woman. The old-fashioned weaver was obliged to possess skill and enough strength to pull his beam back and forth. With the invention of machinery the need of skill has been eliminated from many processes; with the application of steam and electricity, strength has also been largely eliminated, so that a little child may mend the thread in a textile mill almost as well and in some respects better than a strong and clumsy man or woman. This is true of many other industries, until it has come about that we are tempted as never before to use the labor of little children and that the temptation to exploit premature labor is peculiar to this industrial epoch.

What then are we doing about it? How deeply are we concerned that this labor shall not result to the detriment of the child, and what excuses are we making to ourselves for thus prematurely using up the strength of a child? Of course it is always difficult to see the wrong in a familiar thing and it is a test of moral insight to be able to see that an affair of familiar intercourse and daily living may also be wrong. I have taken a Chicago street car on a winter's night in December at ten o'clock when dozens of little girls who have worked in the department stores all day are also boarding the cars. I know as many others [page 2] do that these children will not get into their beds much before midnight, and that they will have to be up again early in the morning to go to their daily work. And yet I take my car almost placidly -- I am happy to say not quite placidly -- because I have seen it many times. Almost every day at six o'clock I see certain factories pouring out a stream of men and women and boys and girls. The boys and girls have a peculiar hue, a color so distinctive that any one meeting them on the street even on Sunday in their best clothes and mixed up with other children who go to school and play out of doors, can distinguish almost in an instant the children working in factories. There is also on their faces a something indescribable, a premature anxiety and sense of responsibility which we should declare pathetic if we were not used to it.

How far are we responsible when we allow custom to blind our eyes to the things that are wrong? In spite of all of our charities and corrections, are we really so lacking in moral enterprise and vigor that the people who come after us may say -- "The real temptation which came to them they did not even perceive; they talked about applied morality, seemed to have good ideas, but they fell down before the one situation which they ought to have grappled with."

What excuses do we make for ourselves? The sentimental excuse is the one [we] use most frequently in the north. It is said that the labor of these little children is needed for the support of widowed mothers. Some of us are sure that the widowed mother argument has been seriously overworked. In every community there can only be a certain number of widowed mothers, unless some plague has carried off the men in the prime of life. Out of that number of widows only another certain number will be absolutely impecunious, for if the community is prosperous some of the working men by benefit societies and insurances will have made some little provision for their families. Out of that certain number of impecunious widows only a few will have children between the ages of ten and fourteen, in which short space of time the temptation to the premature use of children's labor always lies. [page 3]

In a certain manufacturing town it was discovered that 3,600 children on the school census roll were not to be found in the schools. We have a much larger number than that in Chicago; according to our school census we lose 11,000 between the first and second grades. In this particular manufacturing town it was suggested that the children be looked up and the number of those who were supporting widowed mothers be verified. Out of the 3,600 children it was found that 1,100 were legitimately out of the public schools, i.e.,  that they had moved out of the district, that they were ill, that they were attending private institutions, or that they were legally at work. That left 2,500 to be accounted for, and out of those it was found that exactly 66 were the children of widows. Out of the 66 only 23 were in any real sense contributing to the support of their mothers. The other mothers had older children or other means of support, so that only 23 were in any way absolutely dependent on the wages of those children, which wages could be only supplementary at best. It was certainly a great deal better for the community, for the widows and the children, that grown up, vigorous people should take care of those 23 widows for a few years, until the children were old enough to go out to work and bring in a decent wage with which to support the family, and that the children should be saved from the breakdown, which premature labor so often implies.

When children are thus broken down it means that we do not stand up to the obligations which belong to our own time, but insist upon using up the energy which belongs to the future.

What connection do we find between child labor and pauperism? In the little book on American Charities written by Dr. A. G. Warner, a better than which has never been issued, he takes statistics from various cities and gives three or four leading causes of pauperism. The first cause is non-employment. In almost every case the men who first lose their places and are most quickly thrown out in an industrial crisis, those who are the last to be taken on in times of industrial prosperity, who are inefficient and not very strong, men who do not stand well in the trades and whom the foreman is glad to get rid of in any way, are those who have never had sufficient training, and who curiously [page 4] lack strength and vigor. How far is child labor responsible for this lack of training and vigor, for this class of paupers? We have a municipal lodging house in Chicago largely filled with tramps. In addition to housing them, an intelligent effort is made to get them into regular industry. A physician is in attendance and makes a careful examination of each man who comes to the lodging house, and for the last few months we have been trying to see what connection can be genuinely established between premature labor and worn out men. It is surprising to find how many of them are tired to death of monotonous labor and begin to tramp in order to get away from it, just as a business man goes into the woods because he is worn out with the monotony of business life. This inordinate desire to get away from work seems to be connected with the fact that the men have started to work very early, before they had the physique to stand up to it, or the mental vigor with which to overcome its difficulties, or the moral stamina which makes a man stick to his work whether he likes it or not. But we cannot demand any of these things from a growing boy. A boy grows restless, his determination breaks down and he runs away. At least this seems to be true of many of the men who come to the lodging house. I recall a man who had begun to work in a textile mill quite below the present legal age in New England, and who had worked hard for sixteen years. He told his tale with all simplicity, and as he made a motion with his hand, he said: "I done that for sixteen years." I give the words as he gave them to me. "At last I was sick in bed for two or three days with a fever, and when I crawled out I made up my mind that I would rather go to hell than to go back to that mill." Whether he considered Chicago an equivalent for that I do not know, but he certainly tramped to Chicago and has been tramping four years. He does not drink except occasionally, and that only during the last two years. He does not steal. He works in the summer and wanders about the rest of the year getting something to do when he can; but the suggestion of a factory throws him into a panic and quickly causes him to disappear from the lodging house. The physician has made a diagnosis of "general debility." The man is not fit [page 5] for steady work. He has been whipped in the battle of life, and is spent prematurely because he began prematurely.

What does this mean? That the young can not stand up to the grind of factory life; that they break down under it, and that we have no right to increase the list of paupers, the list of those who must be cared for by the municipality and by state agencies because when they are still immature and undeveloped, they are subjected to this tremendous pressure.

Let us take another of Mr. Warner's classifications -- his classification of illness. We know of course, how the hospitals are beginning to look into this matter, and how they trace certain diseases to the breakdown of the organs which were subjected to abnormal uses, before they were ready to bear it. I recall a tailor for whom the residents of Hull-House tried to get medical assistance. He died at the age of 33, and his death certificate bore the record of "premature senility" due to the fact that he had run a sewing machine since he was six years old. It is no figment of the imagination to say that the human system breaks down when it is put to monotonous work before it is ready to stand up to that work, and that general debility and many diseases may be traced to premature labor. No horse trainer would permit his colts to be so broken down.

Take the pauperizing effects of child labor on the parents. We have in Chicago a great many European immigrants, people who have come from country life in the south of Italy, or Bohemia, hoping that their children will have a better chance than at home. In the old country they worked on farms, which was a very normal life for a young boy or girl. When they come to Chicago they see no reason why their children should not go to work, because they see no difference between the normal activity which they had as boys and the grinding life to which they subject their children. It is difficult for a man who has grown up in out door life to adapt himself to the factory.

You have had similar experience in the South with the families who come to the textile mills from the little farms. They resent the monotonous, petty work. They get out from under it. They will in preference do more poorly paid work, like the care of horses, sweeping floors, or work which has some [page 6] similarity to that to which they have been accustomed. At least that is our experience in Chicago. So the parents drop out, and the children make the adaptation and remain, and you get the curious result of the parent of the household being more or less dependent on the earnings of the child. You will hear a child say, "My mother can't say nothing to me; I pay the rent:" or, "I can do what I please because I bring home the biggest wages." All this tends to break down the normal relation between parents and children. The Italian men who go out to work on the railroad in summer tend to settle down in winter upon the wages of their children. It is too great a temptation. A young man from the South of Italy was mourning the death of his little girl of 12, and in his grief he said quite simply, "She was my oldest kid" -- (that is the English that many of our friends learn first) "and in two years she could have supported me, and now I shall have to work five or six years longer until the next one" (who was three or four years younger) "can do it." He expected to retire permanently at 36. That breaking down of the normal relation of parent and child and the tendency to pauperize the parent is something to which we have no right to subject him. We ought to hold the parent up to the obligation which he would have fulfilled, had he remained in his early environment.

But the pauperization of society itself is the most serious charge. To paraphrase an illustration used by the Webbs, the factories say to the community; you have educated the children in the public schools, now please give them to me for my factory. I will use them until they begin to demand an adult's wages and then I will turn them out again. If I have broken them down, the community will take care of them in the poorhouse and hospitals. The community which allows this allows itself to be most unfairly treated. What happens when an industry depends upon the labor of boys and girls? It takes those boys and girls at the time when they ought to be at school, when if they were the children of business men they would be having the most expensive education. The wages which are paid to these children of the poor are not the wages which the adult requires, for even the old political economist demanded enough [page 7] for subsistence and reproduction of his kind, but wages of mere subsistence, so that the boy and girl take home barely what is necessary to eat and wear. The manufacturer gives him no real instruction and teaches him nothing beyond the habits of promptness and obedience. In almost all factories the work at which the children are employed leads to no trade. By the time they are old enough to receive adult wages they are often sick of the whole business. Such an industry is parasitic on the future of the community. All recall that when the recruiting officers went into the factory regions of the north of England they found the bulk of the people below the standard in stature required in the English army. They were found specially dwarfed in that part of the country where the third generation recorded in their frames the effects of child labor.

Children subjected to premature labor are handed over to the future in an abnormal condition. They are deprived of education as well as depleted physically, and they enter the life of the community handicapped in every way. There is of course the argument that the effect on the wages of the normal adult is such as to point toward pauperism.

I think Mr. Carroll D. Wright made the statement that in New England ninety-seven and one-third [percent] of the bricklayers support their wives and children up to 16, and that only thirty-three [percent] of the textile workers support their wives and their children to the same age. In the textile industries the fathers and mothers and older children pooling all their wages into a common fund receive fifty dollars less than the bricklayer himself receives during a year.

The gravest charge I have to bring against child labor is that it pauperizes the consumers. If I wear a garment which has been made in a sweat shop or a garment for which the maker has not been paid a living wage -- a wage so small that her earnings had to be supplemented by the earnings of her husband and children, then I am in debt to the woman who made my cloak. I am a pauper and I permit myself to accept charity from the poorest people of the community. All that can be said against the parasitic character of sweating industries can be said against the parasitic character of child labor, with this difference that [page 8] the latter robs the assets of the community, it uses up those resources which should have kept industry going on for many years.

We may trace a connection between child labor and pauperism not only for the child of his own family, bringing on premature old age and laying aside able bodied men and women in the noontide of their years; but also the grievous charge is true that it pauperizes the community itself. I should also add that it debauches our moral sentiment, it confuses our sense of values, so that we learn to think that a bale of cheap cotton is more to be prized than a child properly nourished, educated and prepared to take his place in life. Let us stand up to the obligations of our own age. Let us watch that we do not discount the future and cripple the next generation because we were too indolent, I was going to say because we were too dull, to see all that it involves, when we use the labor of little children.