Sometimes Ending Child Labor Is Cruel to Children

Advocates of ending child labor need to gain some respect for unintended consequences.

Milton Friedman famously suggested that government programs should be measured by results, not their intentions. I’m sure he said also, or would have said, that moral crusades should be judged by their consequences, not by the intentions of the moral crusaders.

For whatever reason the New York Times Editorial Board decided late last month to pass judgment on at what age and how much children in India work for wages and to share their opinion with the world, calling for government intervention to prevent individuals and families from making their own decisions.

Thus, we get the headline: “Ending Child Labor in India.”

India has made encouraging progress in recent years on reducing the number of children forced to work instead of pursuing their education. Unfortunately, recent actions by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi are threatening to stall, or even reverse, that progress.

Between 2001 and 2011, according to official figures supplied by the government, the number of child laborers in India declined from 12.6 million to 4.3 million. But in a nation of 1.2 billion people, 400 million of them very poor, these numbers seem suspiciously low. Unicef put the figure at 28 million. Either way, millions of India’s children are denied an education, forced to toil on farms, in small-scale industries and as domestic help.

Okay, just hold on. If they are “very poor” then they are no more “denied an education” than they are “denied” iPads or “denied” Corvette Stingrays. They simply can’t afford one, both because they don’t have the resources for teachers, school rooms, and books, and because they don’t have the luxury of time since they are trying to stay alive. The “toil on farms, in small-scale industries, and as domestic help” (Oxford comma, people!) because that is in their best interests as people who want to live and prosper as best they can.

To fight this scourge, India passed landmark legislation in 2009 guaranteeing free, compulsory primary education.

Even though I’m used to reading Liberals expressing outrage, it is still jarring to see “free” and “compulsory” nailed together like that, side by side. Of course, both really mean compulsory. “Free,” here, indicates that the teacher and other resources must be taken from someone else in India who is compelled to provide the money required. And compulsory means that children who desperately need income will be prohibited from receiving it because they are required to be present in school.

In 2012, it introduced a bill to ban all work by children under the age of 14.

Obviously, the Indian government found that children didn’t want to be poor and starving, and so were resisting the “compulsory primary education” in order to make money. Ending child labor by threatening to prosecute anyone who would employ them was the government’s solution to this problem.

How does that help children go to bed with full stomachs? How well do hungry children learn?

A bigger question: Is it not suspicious how much progress is supposed to depend on an increase in mass coercion?

Here is the problem. The Indian government backed down from their children’s crusade of coercion and the New York Times Editorial Board is not happy that they are backsliding.

Last month, however, the cabinet approved a huge loophole to these laws that would allow children under 14 to work in “family enterprises.”

Its argument was that children’s wages are essential to the survival of poor families and that working children acquire job skills. This flies in the face of overwhelming evidence that children who are forced to sacrifice education for work are doomed to a lifetime of low-wage jobs, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

This is nonsense. Where did education come from? From ending child labor? Just the opposite. Families who worked hard gradually gained enough capital to invest in educating their children. The top-down approach has a questionable (at best) record and could not possibly have been the cause of educated society.

This isn’t just true in American history where we had better literacy and better math skills before we had “free, compulsory education” imposed on us. It is still true all over the world. The work of the E.G. West Centre at Newcastle University in England has demonstrated this time and again. From India to Ghana parents are finding far superior education when they pay for it themselves out of their own desire to better their children’s future prospects.

Here is Pauline Dixon explaining “How private schools are serving the poorest.”

But leaving aside the issue of how a populace becomes educated and prosperous, let’s also note that the New York Times Editorial Board ignores a historic fact: India has tried banning child labor before and it was a disaster for children.

At Forbes, Tim Worstall explains what happened after India’s first ban in 1986:

Using data from employment surveys conducted before and after the ban, and using age restrictions that determined who the ban applied to, we show that child wages decrease and child labor increases after the ban. These results are consistent with a theoretical model building on the seminal work of Basu and Van (1998) and Basu (2005), where families use child labor to reach subsistence constraints and where child wages decrease in response to bans, leading poor families to utilize more child labor. The increase in child labor comes at the expense of reduced school enrollment. We also examine the effects of the ban at the household level. Using linked consumption and expenditure data, we find that along various margins of household expenditure, consumption, calorie intake and asset holdings, households are worse off after the ban.


The families were trying to make sure that there was enough income to feed the family, obviously enough. And this might mean that one or more children needed to go out to work while education could be offered to one or more of the other children. A cruel choice but better than educating no one or perhaps no one eating. When child labour is illegal then the wages paid to child labour fall. This means that those children who were working are now earning less money. So, more of the children in the family need to work, and fewer to go to school, in order that the family can continue to eat.

So by every measure, including the New York Times’ own suggested standards of success, criminalizing child labor leads to a bad result.

Of course, I don’t think the suggested standard is the real one motivating the New York Times Editorial Board. I think all that matters to them is increasing government interference so they can claim that they are “doing something.”

Yes, they are doing harm.

And, by the way, ending child labor in the U.S. is not a good idea either.