Child labor during World War II

Many states had induced this crisis by suspending or relaxing their child labor laws, but even those still operative proved ineffective.  By one estimate 900,000 children between twelve and eighteen were working in defiance of the law in their state.  Philadelphia saw a decline of 13 percent in high school attendance,while in Oakland 15 percent of the children under sixteen had gone to work.  Nothing demonstrated the failings of the educational system more than the irony that many of these kids earned more than their teachers did.

That is from the new Maury Klein book A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America for World War II.


It makes sense the kids would earn more than teachers, doesn't it? Demand for steel workers, etc. has skyrocketed while demand for education was falling (as a result of demand for steel workers, etc. causing kids to drop out). I'm not sure that story would be a failing of the education system though.

Someone should have done a follow-up to see how much money those kids were making after the war at age 30 or 40, as compared to their peers who stayed in school. I wouldn't be surprised if they did much better, despite perhaps having an educational deficit.

You may well be right: in the immediate post-war decades, the return on education was a lot lower than it was to become later. Those extra years in the workforce may have led to seniority in unionized trades, or the experience to start a business while still young without a lot of debt. It would be interesting to know.

The other obvious followup is how many of them returned to school later in life. Someone working at the age of 16 in 1942 could very well have enlisted and served before the war ended, earned the GI bill, and returned to school later in life.

Anecdotal, but my grandfather was in this cohort, having dropped after 8th grade to join the labor force. What an idiot. He voted for John McCain in 2008 cause he liked Sarah Palin. Probably he didn't want to give up his million dollars in stock and cash to the government, or his 12 rifles, 5 handguns, 2400 sq foot barn, 6 snowmobiles, 6 boats, 7 cars, or any of the rest of that.

Luckily, I know better, because I went to college. I know how much my Grandpa oppressed everyone. My brother, he dropped out after his first year of college. Sure, he makes money, but he works in one of those icky factories.

If only every one went to college, everything would be better.

But seriously, that would be interesting to know.

I don't get this excerpt at all. Sure it's bad to have children working rather than at school (although a lot of people at the time would not have seen people 15-18 as "children" in an economic sense). But we are talking about a situation of total war, where a lot of the usual societal rules were temporarily inoperative -- of all the unutterably atrocious things that happened during that war, I doubt that some teenagers dropping out of school to take highly paid work is very high on the list.

And I don't see what conclusions we can take from the fact that the teenagers may have made more than their teachers. Total war is about mobilizing the entire economy towards a crucial short-term objective; there is a massive shift in resources from the private sphere to the public, and within the public sphere, from long-term social objectives (e.g. education) to the short term necessity, without which all the long-term investment might be rendered pointless.

Correct. It is hard to tell without more context around the quote, but the word "crisis" does seem odd, as if two nations going around invading all their neighbors does not somehow qualify as a crisis.

If the teenagers are making more than their teachers, then I think the market is speaking quite loudly (with the caveat that comparing a government position to wage controlled industries does raise questions about the validity of the data).

I agree with Dave. The normal rules of society ceased to exist during WWII. How else would you explain the wholesale extermination practices of the Germans and the Russians on the Eastern Front?

There was a call to arms for every able-bodied man and woman in the country at that time. Some produced arms, and some used them. How did the pay of a 16 year private that lied about his age to fight overseas compare to those of a teacher at the time? It's a pointless discussion that shows a lack creativity on the part of the author.

Salary is and always should be based on performance and value. Not by some arbitrarily assigned number representing what someone thinks is fair.

It makes sense the kids would earn more than teachers, doesn’t it? Demand for steel workers, etc. has skyrocketed while demand for education was falling (as a result of demand for steel workers, etc. causing kids to drop out). I’m not sure that story would be a failing of the education system though.

I agree with Dave.

"many of these kids earned more than their teachers did" After you factor in pensions, life long healthcare plans, the value of a stable, tenured job, and other benefits, I don't see how this could ever happen again in Oakland or any other California city.

I keep saying it. Kids these days are just not pulling their weight.

Audie Murphy would probably agree with you.

What's the big deal? The British education system has manual skills workers complete their education at 15, after they've learned work skills in school. In the American system, someone needs to successfully survive "college-prep lite" to graduate, then go to Tech school to learn a skill. Even in this economy, some skills are in demand; e.g., welding. By the time an American worker can land a job, the British worker would have three-to-four years of experience---and income.

Also, one must keep in mind, that during the era of WW2, school teachers earned little because there were only three normal professions female workers could go into: teaching, nursing, or secretarial. Teachers' salaries were thereby low and remained so for decades after WW2.

What's ironic is that it was against the law for those teenagers to add value to society and themselves by going to work rather than waste their time in a classroom, effectively destroying the value of their unused labor.

Has anybody yet studied how much the mid-2000s Housing Bubble drove up the Hispanic high school drop out rate over what it would have been?

I agree with virtually all posts above:

-It was a singular, or at least rare, situation.
-It was efficient.

Child labor, through the eons, contributed to survival. At the time of WW II, it hadn't been very long that child labor in the US had declined noticeably. Using contemporary opinion that passes for morals to judge such a situation is merely absurd.

You know, speaking as someone who has taught both high school (8 years) and college (starting year 15 in a full time position) - there are lots of folks who would be happier and more productive getting out of the hands of the educators at 15 or so. Though I was not one of them, I've never thought everyone was like me.

Hell, in H2 of 1944, all the newly drafted US troops were children (18 years)

I find it interesting that Rosa the Riveter became kind of a feminist icon due to the women pulled into the workforce against their will by the war, but the children who did the same are forgotten. History (or at least historians) do tend to cherry pick, don't they?

So what is the point? The US had nearly a nationalized economy in WW2 and a lot of people did not finish High School even before the war. Anyway, I always understood what slow down child labor was the Depression because firms could hire older teenagers and adults for jobs formerly done by kids and the parents in working class families did everything to ensure their kids would get an education and not do low wage work. (Also there was a baby bust in the early Depression as well.)

>demonstrated the failings of the educational system

Which are what?

That teachers are awesomely super-incredible, those doggone evil forces are at work to keep their wages unfairly low?

Or that teachers are really rather ordinary people doing an ordinary job and making appropriately ordinary pay?

'Or that teachers are really rather ordinary people doing an ordinary job and making appropriately ordinary pay?'

As the author is a professor emeritus, I doubt he would agree with the above.

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