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The Militant, 14 March 1947

Ruth Johnson

Two Million Lost Childhoods

From The Militant, Vol. 13 No. 11, 14 March 1949, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


“The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day
The little children at their work
Can see the men at play.”

Just an echo of the past? Not at all! I remembered the poem and the whole struggle against child labor when I came across an article in the February issue of Woman’s Home Companion. The author, Edith Stern, shows that “one out of every six of our 14 and 15-year olds is now at work,” and over two million boys and girls had jobs during the last school year.

That’s a slight improvement over the height of this crimewave against youth. During the Second World War, with the agreement of the labor bureaucrats and the blessing of the patriotic “liberals,” as many as five million children were employed. Under the pretext of speeding the war effort, the states watered down the protective laws won through decades of union struggle. The states promised, of course, to restore the laws when peace returned. But like the wartime pledges of full employment, decent homes and the four freedoms, these promises to repair the child labor laws are ignored.

“Five states have extended wartime relaxations of child labor restrictions supposed to expire in 1945,” Miss Stern warns. Nine states have killed proposed bills that would have set even the inadequate minimum of a 16-year working age during school hours. Texas has favored the cannery bosses with exemptions that allow them to work 15-year-old girls more than 54 hours a week. And so on!

In the canneries; in the huge “factories in the field” owned by agricultural barons; in department stores, laundries, bowling alleys, and delivering newspapers for the boss press, children do man-sized jobs while parents swell the ranks of the unemployed.

Deprived of all chance to play and grow, the boys and girls are put at tasks beyond their strength. Their health is undermined. They suffer twice as many permanent injuries through industrial accidents as adult workers do. Forced to accept less than adult wages, they in turn depress the living standards of the whole working class, and force more parents to send more children to work to feed the families.

For all who thought capitalism would at least wipe out this blot on its record of oppression, the last few years should be proof that free enterprise will not reform. From its first years, as Marx proved in Capital, the profit system has thrived on the misery of children. It squanders future generations as not even slave-holders could afford to do – for under capitalism, even the young are “free.”

Socialism alone will wipe out the tragedy of that little quatrain. It will take all children out of the mill and give them at last a place in the sun.

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