Homework Destroys Family Life

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Homework Destroys Family Life


By: Anonymous

Date: c. 1900

Source: Corbis Corporation

About the Author: This photograph is part of the collection of the Corbis Corporation, headquartered in Seattle, with a worldwide archive of over seventy million images.


When modern children complain about homework, they are typically lamenting school-related assignments. But at the beginning of the twentieth century, the term homework had a far different meaning. In that era, homework referred to labor done for pay in one's home, and in particular to sewing and other manual work which filled the afternoons and evenings of many young children in large cities. Many of these children were forced to spend most of their non-school hours working.

Throughout history, children have been expected to work. Agricultural life often required the efforts of the entire family, and schools often closed during harvest time, as many rural children helped harvest crops and drive livestock to market. With the coming of the Industrial Age, rural American families migrated to cities where the parents took jobs in factories or offices and the children had the opportunity to attend school. Public education was compulsory, but attendance was poorly policed.

In 1906, an extensive study of child labor in New York City was commissioned. Child labor laws existed at that time, prohibiting youth under the age of fourteen from working in factories or stores. But throughout the densely crowded tenements of the city, the report's authors repeatedly observed young children carrying boxes containing partially finished clothing or pieces of artificial flowers. Investigating the situation further they found that while state law prohibited school-aged children from working in their homes during school hours, it did not regulate after-hours work. As a result many school children labored in their homes from the end of school until well into the night. The law also provided no regulation of younger children, meaning preschoolers could legally work at home all day.

This system of home labor was loosely regulated; state law prohibited the manufacture of forty-one specific items in homes, though all others could be legally produced. The home labor system actually simplified the lives of factory owners, who sent out unfinished goods and paid a piece-rate for finished products, simplifying compliance with New York labor laws.

The report concluded that numerous poor children were being denied the basic rights of children, specifically the chance to receive an education, the opportunity to enjoy playing, and, in the case of many immigrants, the chance to learn the English language. The problem was widespread: in 1901 the city of New York legally licensed more than 16,000 home workrooms, while the number of unlicensed workrooms was impossible to determine.



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School attendance and child labor laws in the United States today are much more rigorously enforced. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) regulates labor by minors, prohibiting most children under age fourteen from being employed by a business. During the school year fourteen and fifteen year olds may be employed, but their labor is limited to eighteen hours per week and they may not work before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. Sixteen and seventeen year olds may work unlimited hours, but are prohibited from holding potentially hazardous jobs such as mining, logging, or operating metal-forming machinery. Youths as young as ten may work in some farm-related positions with parental consent.

Youth workers are guaranteed the federal minimum wage, and hours over forty per week must be paid at a rate of time and a half. Employees under twenty years of age may be paid a slightly lower wage their first ninety days of employment; however federal law prohibits firing a current employee in order to hire another at the lower starting wage.

Child labor today is currently defined as any work which exploits children or keeps them from attending school. Poverty in many countries motivates child labor, often in hazardous environments and for low wages. In some countries children are conscripted and forced to join military units. Employers frequently prefer child laborers since they are energetic and rarely protest poor treatment.

While child labor has been largely eradicated in the United States, American companies now conduct a growing share of their business overseas. Clothing firms in particular now manufacture the vast majority of their products in other countries, many of which provide little legal protection for employees. In the 1990's several large companies came under fire for allegedly contracting with factories employing children. Nike Apparel was one of the targeted firms, and in 1998 the company ordered all its contract manufacturers to set a minimum age of sixteen for workers; companies violating this policy are required to remove the underage workers, continue paying their wages, place them in school, and rehire them when they are old enough. Critics of Nike's policies accuse them of covering up violations in their factories.

As of 2006, the United Nations agency UNICEF estimated that 246 million children worldwide were employed in child labor and that 171 million of those positions were hazardous. More than two-thirds of child labor at that time took place in agriculture-related and fishing/hunting industries; approximately sixty percent of child labor occurred in Asia.



Orr, Deborah. Slave Chocolate? New York: McFarland and Company, 2005.


Kambhampati, Umas. And Raji Rajan. "Economic Growth: A panacea for child labor?" World Development. 34(2006):426-445.

Togunde, Dimeji and Arielle Carter. "Socioeconomic causes of child labor in urban Nigeria." Journal of Children and Poverty. 12(2006):73-89.

Web sites

Charities and the Commons. "Child Labor in New York City Tenements." 〈http://www.tenant.net/Community/LES/kleeck9.html〉 (accessed June 21, 2006).

Child Labor Coalition. "An Overview of Federal Child Labor Laws." 〈http://www.stopchildlabor.org/USchildlabor/fact1.htm〉 (accessed June 21, 2006).

Nike Apparel. "Workers and Factories Code of Conduct." March, 2005 〈http://www.nike.com/nikebiz/〉 (accessed June 21, 2006).