Girl in a Bean Field

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Girl in a Bean Field

Migrant Farm Worker Children


By: Anonymous

Date: 1949

Source: © Bettmann/Corbis.

About the Photographer: This photograph is part of the collection at Corbis Images, a worldwide provider of visual content materials to advertisers, broadcasters, designers, magazines, new media organizations, newspapers, and producers. The photographer is not known.


For most of history, children have worked. The notion of a childhood in which children play and go to school instead of supplementing family income is a relatively recent one. In the nineteenth century, rising wealth allowed middle-class parents the luxury of keeping their children out of the workplace. Poor parents did not have this option.

With few adult industrial and agricultural workers able to earn enough to support and educate a family in the nineteenth century, children were compelled by necessity to enter the work force. By 1900, about 1.7 million children labored in American industries, more than double the number in 1870. In the 10- to 15-year-old age group, 18.2 percent were employed, with more than half working in agricultural trades.

Because they were cheap to employ and had small, nimble fingers, children were well suited to the small repetitious tasks that American industry demanded—but their labor came at a high price. Breaker boys in coal mines sorted coal from slate and developed hunched-over backs along with pallor. Snapping-up boys in glass factories suffered eye damage from the bright, glaring light of molten glass and lung damage from inhaled glass dust. Children of both sexes cracked open sharp oyster shells and shelled shrimp in canneries then soaked their bleeding hands in a strong alum solution to toughen the skin and help heal the wounds. Mill children lost fingers or limbs to machinery, while boys and girls who peeled apples or shelled peas often injured themselves with slipped knives.

In the early twentieth century, new ideas about child development emerged. Americans began to see childhood as a series of stages, each with specific physical and psychological demands that had to be satisfied for the child to progress into a healthy adult able to fulfill his or her potential. Children who spent crucial years at labor would progress into "human junk," as one poster in the 1920s proclaimed—adults doomed to become burdens upon society because of weakened bodies and uncultivated minds. Halting child labor, it was believed, would help end the cycle of poverty, reduce crime, and ensure the preservation of democracy.

A number of states instituted reforms designed to influence the supply of child labor, including compulsory education and minimum ages for employment. However, the laws proved relatively easy to evade. The names of underage workers typically did not appear in company books because their pay went to an older brother or sister. Some states required only a signed statement by a parent or guardian that a child was of the legal employment age. Agricultural and domestic workers were typically exempt from such laws.



See primary source image.


The number of undocumented workers in the U.S. is estimated at 11-15 million. The rising debate over the effects of such immigration is focusing more attention on migrant children, especially the sons and daughters of undocumented workers, who continue to be part of the modern American workforce. The exact numbers of child workers is unknown because of the difficulty in measuring illegal labor, but the effects of migrant labor on children are well documented.

In 2005, the national poverty rate for immigrants and their American-born children was 18.4 percent. One-third of immigrants lacked health insurance. In California, which had the highest number of immigrant arrivals from January 2000 to March 2005 with 1.8 million, nearly half the immigrants and their children lived in or near poverty. Almost half the California households using a welfare program such as food stamps or supplemental social security income were headed by immigrants.

Migrant children, often on the move and worried about being identified by authorities, rarely attend school on a regular basis. In 2005, 31 percent of adult immigrants lacked a high school degree, condemning them to low-wage jobs. To combat this problem, in 2001 the Texas legislature permitted some undocumented immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition at public colleges. An undocumented student pays $616 a semester for a 12-hour course load at Alamo Community College while a non-Texas resident pays $2,056. In 2005, 3,700 undocumented workers took advantage of this program.

The legislation has since come under attack by opponents who argue that it violates the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which prohibits states from providing access to colleges and universities at rates not available to citizens. Critics also cite concerns about terrorists being given potential access to American schools, while others claim that reduced tuition payments strain public budgets and deny educational opportunities to Americans. A similar law was struck down in Kansas, but immigrant tuition laws remain in place in California, New York, Utah, Illinois, Washington, and Oklahoma.



Coles, Robert. Migrants, Sharecroppers, Mountaineers: Children of Crisis. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971.

Hayes, Curtis W., Robert Bahruth, and Carolyn Kessler. Literacy con Carino: A Story of Migrant Children's Success. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998.

Martinez, Ruben. Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001.