The New York Times’s recent exposé on child labor in the United States wasn’t about what might be called “child labor lite”: examples, say, of kids working in candy stores, logging long hours as babysitters, or getting up early to do paper-delivery rounds. Instead, it was about truly Dickensian conditions: children, many of whom were unaccompanied migrants, getting mangled while working overnight shifts in meat-packing plants; children working long hours on construction sites; children working into the wee hours in food-processing facilities; children getting chemically burned after working overnight shifts as janitors. These kids were, plain and simple, being labor-trafficked.
It was one of those pieces of investigative writing so painful in what it said about our society, so gripping in its narrative of exploitation, that after I finished reading, I thought, surely politicians will be forced to action — much as they were after Upton Sinclair’s detailing of labor conditions in Chicago meat-packing factories more than a century ago.
I was right that politicians would indeed be goaded into action; I was wrong, however, as to what action they would take. Far from shoring up protections against the exploitation of children by multinational corporations, by temporary employment agencies and by the “guardians” who, like Dickensian villains of yesteryear, send their wards out to work, GOP politicians took it as an opportunity to weaken child labor laws.
Arkansas, under Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, led the stampede. A week after the Times article was published, the governor signed legislation eliminating the requirement for age-verification for under-16s before they can take a job. The bill, HB1410, was marketed by Sanders and her supporters as the “Youth Hiring Act of 2023.” It would, the bill’s language says, “Restore decision-making to parents concerning their children.” Translation: If Mom and Pop demand a kid goes to work an eight-hour shift after school each day, who are we as the general public to say that’s not a good thing? And if that kid never graduates high school, or is condemned to chronic illness or ends up acutely injured because of the job, who is the state to say that that was probably a poor family decision?
Meanwhile, legislators in Iowa are pushing legislation allowing kids as young as 14 to work in the frequently dangerous environment of meat-packing plants. They are also preparing to shield businesses from civil liability if youngsters then end up sick, injured or killed on the job.
In Minnesota, a GOP legislator has proposed a bill that, if it passes, would allow 16-year-olds to work grueling construction site jobs.
In other states, including Ohio and Wisconsin, GOP legislators are floating bills that would lengthen the number of hours teens can work each week while school is in session.
Cumulatively, the Republican Party is embracing policies that would take U.S. labor protections back to the early 20th century. Not that this should be any surprise. The GOP, which, absurdly, still fashions itself as the party of good old-fashioned family values, as the pro-life and pro-child party, repeatedly embraces policies that hurt children, especially those who belong to low-income families.
This is the party that spent years fighting the Affordable Care Act, and then, once that horse proved to be too dead to beat anymore, against expansions of the Affordable Care Act. In Mississippi, where legislators have consistently refused to expand Medicaid, as well as in Georgia, more than 6 percent of kids have no access to health care. In Florida, the number is 7.3 percent. That’s pretty appalling, but not nearly as scandalous as Texas, where nearly 12 percent of children are uninsured. This is the same state that is ostensibly so “pro-life” that it now allows bounty-hunting anti-abortion activists to sue anyone who aids and abets someone in securing an abortion.
Contrast that with California, which has put billions of dollars into expanding health care access; despite a large undocumented population (who exist largely outside of federal safety net programs), only 3.5 percent of kids are uninsured there, and that number is on a downward trajectory. In New York, the number is 2.6 percent.
Twelve years ago, the Tea Party-dominated House GOP proposed sweeping cuts to the federal WIC program that would have resulted in as many as 450,000 low-income mothers and children being refused basic nutritional assistance. More recently, the Trumpist GOP also proposed hundreds of millions of dollars of cuts to WIC. In the same Trump years, the party embraced proposals to dramatically scale back the food stamp program, and impose work requirements, which, had they been implemented, would have had the effect of throwing millions of families into hunger.
In the current round of “negotiations” over the debt-ceiling — read: the current GOP efforts to hold the nation’s good-credit hostage to their extreme political agenda — Republicans are proposing such huge reductions in social safety net expenditures that the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently estimated they could result in more than 10 million people losing their food stamps.
And then there’s the perennial issue of guns. In 2022, according to data compiled by the Gun Violence Archive, more than 6,000 children and teenagers were either killed or injured in shootings in the U.S. The GOP’s response? Thoughts and prayers, and, at the same time, a crusade to eliminate what few gun control laws are on the books and to make it ever easier for people to buy and stockpile weapons of war. One can see that gun violence is higher than the national average in Republican-governed states — places where there has been the most concerted effort in recent years to eliminate any and all gun control legislation.
So, to return to the subject at hand: child labor. How entirely depressing, and yet how entirely predictable, that the GOP, the self-styled party of family values, is throwing in its lot with child labor exploiters. After all, it’s spent years trying to enact policies that would make poor kids hungrier, sicker, more likely to die violent deaths, and less likely to access higher education and other institutions of social mobility. So why be surprised when Gov. Huckabee Sanders, with a straight face, tells her audience that making it easier for young children to be exploited by parents, by guardians, and by businesses, is actually simply about eliminating onerous and obsolete burdens on businesses and restoring freedom to families too long crushed by government regulations?
With the modern GOP, the term “hypocrisy” seems grotesquely inadequate to the needs of the moment in describing the unabashed political and ethical malfeasance animating the policy priorities of the “family values” party.