An international friend brought a horrifying article to my attention over the weekend. It did not involve terrorism, Syria, the Standing Rock fiasco, or even Harambe. It was far more subtle a subject, far more insidious, and based on many misconceptions and quiet propaganda. The article was originally called, Bring Back Child Labor, until the author, Joseph Sunde, received such backlash he changed it to, Work is a Gift Our Kids can Handle.
Posted on the Acton Institute Power Blog, I detected some hints of conservative Christian homeschooling rhetoric I remembered from a few years ago, when I was involved in that movement with/for my small children. The Acton Institute’s stated mission is, “to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.” While the rest of the About page seeks to portray an ecumenical, almost secular and educated feel (nowhere is the word “Christian” mentioned), a quick look through Acton’s bookshop* proves their exclusively Christian underpinnings.
Betsy DeVos, Trump’s current pick for Secretary of Education, who recently made headlines with her trademark support of charter schools and school vouchers, is also a supporter of the Acton Institute, among others. This, in conjunction with the article in question, has deeply concerned many onlookers about the possible future of public education in America, but the rabbit hole goes deeper still.
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For at least the past 10 years, the Homeschool Legal Defense Fund (HSLDA) has made it their mission to reduce state laws pertaining to child labor. In the states of Missouri and South Dakota, they have successfully overturned previous child labor laws in the name of homeschool anti-discrimination. They have been working on a federal bill to the same end nationwide since 2006*. The HSLDA represents the welfare and rights of not just homeschoolers, but ultra-conservative Evangelical Christian homeschoolers in particular (more on HSLDA in another post).
It is the position of the HSLDA, that children as young as 12 should be allowed to work, if their parents view such work as beneficial to the child’s education.
“…a 12-year-old homeschooler in Illinois was manning the cash register for his family’s business after his morning schoolwork was done. He enjoyed the opportunity to earn a little money, and his parents knew that it helped him hone his math skills. Unfortunately, a customer did not feel the same way. She turned the family in to the Illinois Labor Department. After looking into the matter, the department prohibited the boy from working during school hours.” –Source
The article claims many of the child labor laws enacted by states in throughout the 1800s were necessary for their time, but are “outdated”, and suggests that all federal laws regarding child labor restrictions were and are superfluous (no question where this organization stands on states’ rights!). The article continues by outlining general laws pertaining to working children at different ages. A few key laws include:
- No child under 16 may work during school hours, which are defined as public school hours (typically 8:30 a.m.-3:00 p.m., depending on the state).
- The child is limited to 3 hours of work per day during a school week, or 18 hours a week.
- He may not work before 7:00 a.m. or after 7:00 p.m. except from June 1 to Labor Day, when evening hours are extended to 9:00 p.m.
- Children may perform agricultural jobs for employers who have filed a waiver with the federal secretary of labor for exemption from the work hours and minimum age requirements for those particular jobs.
- A child may only work during school hours if he is not getting paid. An example of such a situation is a school “work study” program, in which children gain work experience for educational purposes. –Source
The question remains: Why should some Christians seek to overturn these child labor laws?
Look how “Happy (Doc and Dopey)” are the “children” working in the mines! They exemplify proper economics and virtue!
Why would Sunde (getting back to the original article in question) feel encouraged to blithely insist the Washington Post’s recent photo montage of dirty, poorly clothed child laborers from the early 1900s, was over-the-top for (rightly) calling the pictures “haunting”. Several of those kids were smoking for crying out loud! Or does Sunde think being filthy, poor, abused, and developing lung cancer are signs of virtuous character?
He seems to ignore those details, opting to focus on a favorite conservative fantasy that these children were using their “creative talents” to “build enterprises and cities, using their gifts to serve their communities, and setting the foundation of a flourishing nation.”
Sunde quotes heavily and with admiration, one Jeffrey Tucker from the Foundation for Economic Education. Tucker’s article titled, Let the Kids Work, is a perfect example of someone who is disconnected from reality. He calls the Washington Post’s photos, “beautiful”, and proceeds to imagine what the children in the pictures must have experienced:
“They are working in the adult world, surrounded by cool bustling things and new technology. They are on the streets, in the factories, in the mines, with adults and with peers, learning and doing. They are being valued for what they do, which is to say being valued as people. They are earning money. Whatever else you want to say about this, it’s an exciting life.”
Tucker pretends to believe the whopper that, “it was the market, not the government that reduced and nearly eliminated full-time grueling child labor.” Didn’t he just say those abused children were actually having the time of their lives? Didn’t he then proceed to make fun of those who might protest on the children’s behalf with, “Oh, look how exploitative it is!”
While Sunde insists in a new disclaimer, “I do NOT endorse replacing education with paid labor…nor do I support getting rid of mandatory education at elementary and middle-school ages.” Yet his own essay quotes Tucker’s insane words, “If kids were allowed to work and compulsory school attendance was abolished, the jobs of choice would be at Chick-Fil-A and WalMart.” (emphasis added by me)
Sunde goes on to say,
“In our schools and educational systems, what if we stopped prioritizing “intellectual” work to the detriment of practical knowledge and physical labor, paving new paths to a more holistic approach to character formation? In our policy and governing institutions, what if we put power back in the hands of parents and kids, dismantling the range of excessive legal restrictions, minimum wage fixings, and regulations that lead our children to work less and work later?”
Our forefathers’ greatest mission was free and public education for all American citizens, so Americans would not be subject to oppression! Washington and Franklin and the others are spinning in their graves to hear such blasphemies from so-called modern educated (Christian) men.
The reality of working children due to the continued and inexcusable lack of oversight of homeschooled kids is already a current problem:
“In some cases, educational neglect may occur when a homeschooled child is expected to work rather than study. In some cases…homeschooled children may be treated as servants and expected to do childcare and housecleaning rather than completing homeschool lessons. In other cases, homeschooled children’s education may cease at age 12 or 14 as they are expected to work full time, often in family businesses or doing various manual labor. “By 11, he was working full time with his dad who did construction,” writes Miranda of her homeschool graduate husband. “By 14, he was in the woods logging, carrying the full weight of a grown man’s job, helping bring home income for his parents.” These children are frequently not paid for their labor, and are thus both deprived of an education and exploited…These children often reach adulthood limited by their lack of education, their career path chosen by their parents through their failure to educate.” –Source
It’s even more of a problem for some homeschooled girls, whose educations are often devalued as they are raised to be “keepers at home”. The Coalition for Responsible Home Education quotes from Christian leader RC Sproul Jr., ““She [a nine-year-old homeschooled girl] doesn’t know how to read, but every morning she gets up and gets ready for the day. Then takes care of her three youngest siblings. She takes them to the potty, she cleans and dresses them, makes their breakfasts, brushes their teeth, clears their dishes, and makes their beds.” Now I [Sproul] saw her rightly, as an overachiever.”
Though it hasn’t been updated in 3 years, Sunde’s blog, Remnant Culture, features a telling who’s-who* of Evangelical and Catholic leaders and organizations whose mission is to instill pure capitalism (free market/free enterprise) in order to bring back the individual freedoms of religion and democracy they believe they have lost.
It is rather shocking that the very people who give the most lip service to education, America’s Founding Fathers, the value of children, and Christian morals, are the same ones advocating for elimination of compulsory education laws, a reduction of child labor laws, and the idolization of one form of human (i.e. fallible) government. In their minds, free enterprise is next to godliness (more on that in a later post). Make no mistake, the Industrial Revolution, America’s purest age of capitalism sans legal restrictions, saw the exploitation of everyone that possibly could be exploited. It was no less than the Northern form of slavery, without the personal investment of human chattel.
*Note: the shop link on the About page appears broken.
** When I first read Sunde’s essay on 11/27/16, he had included a statement about ending compulsory education at 8th grade. You will not find this quote in his current essay, it has since been deleted. The following comment references this quote, and there may be others: http://disq.us/p/1dx5k74.