The Economics of Child Labor

No, not paper routes or roadside car washes, this is about the tough stuff, like Moroccan children in carpet factories. 186 million children, between the ages of 5 and 14, perform illegal child labor. 111 million of these jobs involve hazardous work. Kaushik Basu offers his analysis and observations in the latest issue of Scientific American.

Obviously wealth is the best cure for hazardous and oppressive child labor. By the latter part of the 19th century, child labor was declining in the richer nations.

Basu notes that many anti-child labor campaigns backfire. A 1990s boycott of Nepalese carpets, made with child labor, led many of those children to become reemployed as prostitutes. Boycotts are ineffective when the available alternatives are worse. Anti-child labor regulations can backfire for another reason as well. Many children work simply to help their families achieve a threshold level of income, such as subsistence. The lower the wage that the children earn (think of the regulations as lowering the net returns from child labor), the more they will need to work to reach that threshold.

We learn also that history matters. Adults who worked as children are more likely to send their children out to work, even after adjusting for income.

Basu is skeptical of many interventions but he does not recommend laissez-faire. He argues that there are “multiple equilibria,” and that government can move an economy, in the right stage of development, from one equilibrium to another. The more children that work, the lower the overall level of wages, and the lower the stigma from sending one’s child out to work. Basu argues you can “tip” an economy into considerably less child labor. If you can cut out a big chunk of child labor, wages rise, making child labor for many other families less necessary. The stigma attached to child labor rises as well, and fewer people will send their children out to work. Once an economy is moving away from child labor, the process can happen quite rapidly.