Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Children and Work

Tonight, with two wonderful part-time employees in attendance at the Wed. night knit group, there was a fabulous, though troubling, conversation at Artisan Knitworks about minimum wage and children.   We all agreed that nobody on this Earth can survive on less than 16,000 a year.  But then one said -- she thought controversially -- that maybe kids ought to earn less than adults for their first job.  It seems wrong, she reasoned, for a kid with no experience to earn the same fifteen (proposed) dollars as an older, more experienced household head.  I wondered whether kids HAD to earn money most of the time, in the sense of financial necessity, or whether they just wanted 'stuff'; if the latter, I said, maybe they should read books instead.   No better chance to read books will ever appear in any of our lives than when young.  Later, time never appears.   Time has to be made.

So -- what do I really think about this?   The historian in me hears "child labor" in any mention of reduced wages for kids -- that's more or less what people said in, say, the 1890s when they hired kids to run looms or heavy machinery instead of adults ("Kids don't have the life experience, so why should they earn the same amount?") and then of course they'd hire nothing but kids and laugh all the way to the bank.  On the other hand: Kids don't have families to raise.  Moms and dads have greater responsibility ordinarily, unless children are working under extraordinary duress.   I think of the kids who had to get special work permits (all of which began at the turn of the 20th century) to get out of school when schooling became compulsory in order to earn money for the family.

I guess I think, finally, that flipping a hamburger, or running a loom, or washing a car, is the same for kids and adults.   If we pay people based on what they DO, then I think wages should be the same -- maybe a better minimum wage would help kids spend fewer hours working and more hours reading (or walking, or painting).   The real question is how to persuade employers and the citizenry to take THEIR responsibilities seriously:  Work deserves good pay, regular pay raises, and fair treatment.  If unions really bite the dust, then it will be up to policy makers (popularly elected, remember) to insist on it -- that's why we have unions, by the way.  If we want smart leaders, we need to support kids in every sense of the word.  They need to have time to become whatever they COULD become.

This was really the other person's point.  He had a lot of friends who worked in high school, as did he, and most of them did it because, otherwise, they would not have been able to pay for anything -- They had been made responsible for insurance, clothes, etc.   And he reminded us that, in Europe, kids are supported by community and family until they are DONE with their education; they also don't seem to need their own cars -- blare of trumpets -- because they have excellent mass transit and compact cities.

Much food for thought here.   I'm melancholy at the idea that kids are still having to work each and every day, not just as students, but as wage earners.   I did it at age 12 and every year thereafter; I have wondered more times than not what my life might have been like if I could have gone directly to university instead of taking 8 years off to earn money; if I had not had four jobs at age 14, two jobs at age 12.   How many more books could have been read?   How many more books would I have written later in life?   And so on.   What would have happened if I had been able to accept the offer at Yale-- which I turned down because (you guessed it) I needed to continue to help support the family.  And so I went to community college for a year.    What is youth for, if not to gather unto oneself the tools and habits of mind required for later years?   We have forgotten perhaps.  Or perhaps we have never really learned the value of a person's need for quiet, for contemplation, for doing nothing more frenetic than thinking.  If you guys are reading this:  I get it.  I do think the real problem, though, is that we don't support children (we really don't); to spoil kids, or to try to teach them the value of the dollar by making them work at an early age, without serious help from the community or schools, is not to support; nor do we take care of our workers.   It's a sorry condition all around.



  1. You touch on the factors that should determine pay: what people do and what people need in order to survive, along with a sense of equity. Many of us too often think of other reasons to determine income for people (and it is always other people's income we like to determine). A person shouldn't be paid less because they are young, or because they are less educated, or because of their geographic location, or because of their sex, if they are doing the same work. Many children, unfortunately, are supporting their families. If someone has more work experience then they should have a higher income for being more productive or from receiving raises. No child can (legally) work as many hours as an adult, so an adult would eventually earn more. Great entry.

  2. Thanks so much for taking time with this! There is something about being 70 that leads the mind toward past time -- not in a sad way, but meditatively. And, mind you, I had THE most optimistic, energetic working-class parents in the world. But it was hard to find space for important mental work. Again, thanks. svb