When societies decide to curb or abolish child labor, they confront a number of problems. In addition to the lack of available alternatives, especially schooling, and the cultural and economic incentives that make child labor attractive to employers and parents, a number of more practical issues must be addressed. If age limits are to be imposed, or if hours are to be limited for those under a certain age, there must be some method to document a worker's age. Many methods have been attempted and some have been more effective than others. While age documentation provides one vehicle for enforcing child labor restrictions, it cannot, by itself, solve the child labor problem. Documents attesting that the child is of legal age for employment are referred to as working papers.
A requirement for legal working papers presupposes an adequate system of birth records. Before birth records became important, many parents had only a general recollection of the actual age of their children. Some parents kept birth records in family Bibles and other records; parents of modest means might have records in insurance policies; but many parents did not know the precise age of their children. Further, a private system of birth records was vulnerable to abuse. Many parents, often under the coercive influence of their employers, were willing to deliberately misstate the age of their children in order to get them work. Requiring working papers for children could only become fully effective when public birth records had been kept long enough to cover the current cohort of working children.
In America, where, until 1938, "states' rights" precluded a federal role in regulating who should work, each state experimented with age documentation regimes to find a preferred approach. While each state had to find its own way, a more or less orderly evolution took place. Some of the first age limits adopted by northern states required no documentation whatsoever. For example, Pennsylvania had a longstanding minimum age of fourteen for work in mining (sixteen for underground work), but did not require documentation until 1905. Thus, when the Anthracite Coal Strike Commission began holding hearings on the great strike of 1902, the nation was stunned to learn that 10,000 or more children under fourteen were working in the mines and breakers of eastern Pennsylvania. The first laws requiring age documentation typically required only the parent's oath taken by a notary public. Many mines, mills, and factories had their own notaries on staff to handle the paperwork. Some early laws provided for "hardship" exceptions, so that in 1907 there were at least five hundred children under twelve working legally in the cotton mills of South Carolina. The system was fraught with problems and proved an utter failure in eliminating child labor.
Parents had numerous incentives to commit perjury, and many who spoke no English did not even realize they were committing perjury. Employers had little interest in effective enforcement–so long as the children provided papers "that lets us out." Notaries themselves confronted numerous conflicts of interest, for some it was petty corruption in selling work papers, for others they were simply too closely related to the employers who hired children. Eventually laws began to require independent "proof" of age. Various records could suffice including insurance records or statements from ministers, rabbis, and priests, but until reliable systems of public birth records came into use, these methods were not fully effective. For example, in 1916 a priest in eastern Pennsylvania reported he was losing parishioners because he would not issue false birth certificates. In the United States, state and local birth registration laws were adopted on a piecemeal basis, typically lagging enactment of the first child labor laws by several years. Even where the laws were adopted, their application to rural areas and immigrant children remained problematic.
Ultimately, responsibility for issuing and tracking work permits shifted to the schools. When coupled with systems of reliable birth records, this provided a more effective documentation regime. By the end of the twentieth century local schools and health departments bore primary responsibility for administering programs of working papers for youth workers. Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, working papers became a common means for young people to find summer and part-time employment.
See also: Age and Development; Economics and Children in Western Societies; Law, Children and the; Work and Poverty.
Anthracite Coal Strike Commission. 1903. Report to the President on the Anthracite Coal Strike of May–October, 1902. Washington: Government Printing Office.
Hindman, Hugh D. 2002. Child Labor: An American History. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.
Kelley, Florence. 1905. Some Ethical Gains Through Legislation. New York: Macmillan.
Hugh D. Hindman