Keating-Owen Child Labor Act: A Historical Controversy from Issues & Controversies in History

Keating-Owen Child Labor Act: A Historical Controversy from Issues & Controversies in History

A Historical Spotlight from Issues & Controversies in History:
KEATING-OWEN CHILD LABOR ACT: Should the Federal Government Regulate Child Labor?

Was the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act constitutional? Did the federal government have the power to regulate child labor, and should it? Be sure to check out Issues & Controversies in History’s complete and unbiased coverage of this issue. Learn more about the issue and check out a sample of the pro/con arguments on both sides below.

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In 1916, Congress passed the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act, the first national law to restrict child labor in the United States. At the time, children as young as eight or ten years of age often worked many hours a day in factories and mines. Did Congress have the power to regulate child labor in the United States, or did the U.S. Constitution reserve that power to the states? Should the federal government establish uniform national standards concerning child labor, or should each state establish its own laws based on its citizens’ needs?

Arguments Supporting the Federal Regulation of Child Labor: Arguments Opposing the Federal Regulation of Child Labor:
Industrialization has taken children off the farm and out of the home and placed them in new, much more hazardous settings. The conditions under which young children often labor today are dirty, dangerous, and dehumanizing. Children should be going to school, not to work. Society, and the economy, needs educated children, whose futures are not limited to the hot, dusty confines of the factory, the sweatshop, or the coal mine—and the meager wages these industries offer. For all these reasons, child labor must be regulated. States have enacted a variety of laws restricting child labor, but too many states are unwilling or unable to effectively enforce them, and those that do are at a competitive disadvantage with states that do not. It is time to institute a uniform national standard—with effective enforcement procedures built in—to protect children throughout the country. The commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution gives that power to the federal government. Children have always worked and are capable laborers, sometimes more skilled than adults. Putting them to work in factories, mills, and mines benefits society by eliminating the idleness that can lead children into trouble. By earning wages, child workers contribute to their family’s well-being, enabling them to buy food, clothes, and other essential items. Child workers also contribute to the broader economy, especially in the newly industrializing South. This region cannot make the shift from agriculture to industry without skilled factory workers. Children represent the core of that skilled workforce—the future of southern industry. For all these reasons, the federal government should not be allowed to regulate the employment of children. Furthermore, any law banning the interstate trade of goods produced by children violates the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reserves many powers to the states.

Issues & Controversies in History links this pro/con article to rich related resources that enhance the debate. Students and researchers can delve into primary sources that provide context, a topic-specific timeline, a bibliography, and a thought-provoking “What if…” section that explores what might have happened had people made different choices. Plus, discussion questions are provided to inspire critical thinking and analysis.

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