The Lesson of Personal Experience with Child Labor


An apparently missed connection in Laufton Ascencao’s response to Mike Stenhouse’s call for some champions of Rhode Island business betrays what looks like a missed life lesson, and it’s one that goes directly to debates about minimum wages and other uses of government to limit the arrangements to which employers and employees can agree:

I was 12 years old when I started working full-time. I was illegally paid $2 an hour under the table. I didn’t take the job because I wanted to buy myself something nice or because I just loved working so much. I took the job because my family needed food and we needed to keep the lights on. If I didn’t work, there was a good chance we’d end up hungry or in the dark. My mother worked over 80 hours a week and still we struggled.

These are unfortunate circumstances, to be sure, and we should keep in mind that we don’t have important details about Ascencao’s childhood job.  If it was dangerous or arduous work that children shouldn’t be doing under any circumstances, then that would have been wrong on its own merits.

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But if it was work suitable for a child — something safe and of mild strain and low pressure — then one could recast Ascencao’s lesson thus:  Being able to have her child work for $2 per hour allowed Ascencao’s mother to keep food on the table and power in the house.  When those are the stakes, desperate families will go outside of the law, as they did in this case, which is generally a more risky place to be.  Of course, not everybody who might be able to provide such a job is willing to go outside the law, limiting the supply, which means the restrictions can make a bad situation worse.

It would be an error (one that some readers are no doubt itching to make) to take this post as advocacy for child labor.  My preference, however, would be to reduce the circumstances that put families in the position of making these sorts of decisions, and that means developing a healthier economy, which means reducing the drag of taxes and regulations — that is, less government rather than the ever-more government that progressives seek.

  • BasicCaruso

    Yes, how much better things would have been for that family had Laufton’s mother also been paid sub-minimum wage. A workers paradise!

    • Christopher C. Reed

      Brazil? Azores?

    • Justin Katz

      There’s no reason to assume that she would have been.