Labor shortage? Hire underage workers!

METARs are aware that one Macro trend causing inflation is a worker shortage. Some employers are hiring underage teenagers. Unaccompanied migrants are especially vulnerable to this, since they need the jobs and don’t know the laws prohibiting child labor. Many of these jobs are dangerous and kids have been injured.

The question of whether and how much teenagers should be allowed to work is deeply political. So are questions about immigration, especially illegal (undocumented) immigration. Politics is banned on METAR so let’s not get into that here. I’m posting this because it is a Macro trend.

The Dangerous Race to Put More Children to Work, The Editorial Board of the New York Times, March 24, 2023

In February, the Department of Labor announced that it had discovered 102 teenagers working in hazardous conditions for a company that cleans meatpacking equipment at factories around the country, a violation of federal standards. The minors, ages 13 to 17, were working with dangerous chemicals and cleaning brisket saws and head splitters; three of them suffered injuries, including one with caustic burns

Lawmakers in certain states have been vigorously lobbied by industry groups who like the flexibility of teenage employees and say that more children are needed in the work force to make up for labor shortages. …

The administration has asked Congress for more enforcement money in its current budget, and for higher penalties. Neither request is likely to be granted, and immigration reform seems far in the distance. Protections against “oppressive child labor,” however, have been part of American law since the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938; dismantling those safeguards now puts young lives at risk. [end quote]

Like many politically contentious issues, labor regulation is becoming an issue of states passing laws that conflict with federal law. Again, politics is banned on METAR.

If certain states win the ability to hire young workers, those states and the companies who do the hiring will gain a competitive business advantage over those who don’t.



See? And folks here laffed when I proposed “reforming” education laws so kids can drop out of school after 8th grade/age 14, and work full time. Since I first floated that notion, one state has proposed lowering the age for a driver’s license so kids “can drive to work”. Another state has proposed lowering the working age for industrial jobs to 14.

After all, 90% of the US population is, in the eyes of “JCs”, expendable meat. Why spend anything educating expendable meat? Put them to work, so the “JCs” can make money off them. It’s the Shiny thing to do.


Two solutions:

  1. Punish the people that hire child labor (fat chance as it is always easier to go after the defenseless victim).

  2. Fix the immigration policy (yes, this is VERY complex, but it is something that neither political party has the will to do for completely different reasons).

Immigration is part of our DNA. We need to figure out how to get more law abiding immigrants into our country, and not just those with advanced degrees.


Perhaps. But they would also take on the stigma of that child labor. I can definitely see boycotts of products should that come to pass. There could also be state or local level actions, attempting to ban the interstate import of products produced with child labor. That raises all sorts of constitutional issues.

But I am fairly sure there would be some push back on those products by consumers - and potentially spilling over into all products made by such a company. That would offset some of that competitive advantage - and potentially more than all of it.

So I don’t believe there would be as big an advantage as some might think - and it could backfire and become a disadvantage.


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Those bans and boycotts would be decried as “woke”, and in violation of the Federal government’s exclusive authority to regulate interstate commerce, as well as violating state bans on wokieness.

The PR campaign for child labor has been going for a while, with narratives about “learning the dignity of work” and “personal responsibility”.

The next step would be to treat High School the same as college. There may not be enough kids drawn away from free, public, High School and into the workforce to satisfy the “JCs”, so, since “reform” has made education beyond 8th grade optional, there is no obligation on the state to provide High School for free. With High School optional, it can be treated like college, with the students and their parents squeezed for ever higher tuition and fee charges. Escalating costs for High School would push more kids into leaving school and working.



Fortunately, it appears that the Fed government is maintaining some level of middle ground. Parts are swinging left, parts are swinging right - as it has always done and probably always will do. At the moment, we don’t have any federal level bans on “wokieness”. And those states that do (or might soon) have such a ban would likely be the ones to be promoting the child labor. So no shockers there.

The real problem (as in actually a real problem, rather than our slightly made-up - but still plausible although not yet real - hypothetical discussions) would be state level bans on products coming from states that allow child labor. Those might run afoul of the interstate commerce clause.

What would not be able to be stopped would be individuals and groups of individuals arranging boycotts of products or companies. That falls pretty squarely in the first amendment free speech area. If that becomes compromised to the point of prohibiting boycotts of products, we have much bigger problems than child labor in a few selected places.

And then there’s current federal level laws on the books. We currently have laws that regulate employment of minors. And while those could be changed, I think it is highly unlikely that the current Congress could pass a significant weakening of those laws, let alone the current President signing such a law. On the other hand, this Congress and President are only guaranteed to be in office for a bit less than two years. What happens after that is up in the air. And that is where the uncertainty clearly lies.

I am not terribly worried about the issues Wendy raises at the top of the thread. At least not at the moment. But the future is not yet written and things will change in the future. Which way they change is the big unknown. Still, I stand by my initial thoughts that should child labor laws be relaxed in the future, there are likely to be consequences in the market place for the companies that engage in employing child labor.

While we have proven that we are willing to look the other way when foreign children produce cheap products for the US (hello, China, et al), I suspect the result will be different when it is our own children being put to work.



The definition of the problem as framed by the writers of the NYT editorial seems logical when viewing the economy through a twenty year old lens but makes virtually no sense when looking at labor markets today.

Historically, when the bottom of the work ladder consisted primarily of labor that just required the physical presence of a minimally skilled worker, the argument about dipping into student labor made perfect sense. Gas station attendant, grocery cart fetcher, grocery store bagger, fry chef at Bronco Burger… All positions that a still-poorly socialized teenager under 16 could handle while possibly getting a lesson in the importance of punctuality and meeting at least some standard of productivity.

I had a teacher in high school who taught sociology and psychology to seniors but also taught the last year of world / modern history. He was one of "those teachers… The type – everyone had at least one – who tried to be the “hip” teacher by talking to the students more directly about current trends in society. (The kind that would probably be fired in half the country today…). At one point, I remember him making a point in a conversation with a classmate about the origins of the modern concept of compulsory education. You think compulsory education is a healthy society’s method of ensuring all future voting citizens are equipped with a common set of skills to use in making decisions in an informed democracy? Or do you think compulsory education is a rational reaction of a compassionate, advanced industrial democracy that is trying to protect us young innocent children from the abuses of a rapacious capitalist system by keeping us out of the coal mines? Nope. It’s the selfish reaction of older workers trying to ensure children don’t immediately become competition for the lowest rung work, further driving wages down.

I think there is a lot of truth to that.

The idea that companies are looking for ways to ease labor restrictions by hiring even younger workers doesn’t seem to match up with observable trends. I see grocery stores operating with 2 checkout clerks (instead of 5) with all other customers doing their own scanning and bagging, if for no other reason than to avoid the delay created by only having 2 clerks working. I see restaurants operating with 20-30 percent fewer wait staff because waiters now only take the order and drop off the food. The last payment interaction is now handled maybe 50% of the time on a tablet at the table. That frees up two more trips to a given table allowing fewer waiters to handle the other interactions (greeting, order, delivery) with more tables and longer waits for the customer for those interactions.

Consider the education level of student labor. It’s easy to find stories about the high percentage of high school GRADUATES needing remedial courses upon entering college. It’s easy to find stories of how college graduates entering the work force seem to have few immediate practical skills that suit entry level white collar jobs in Corporate America. Now imagine the skills of the average high school student prior to graduation. Do they seem comfortable talking to the public and making eye contact or do they prefer burying their head in their phone? Do they have basic math skills to make change and work as a cashier? Do they even have means to get to a job without a driver’s license?

I think the average fourteen or fifteen year old has nothing to fear about working in the salt mines of corporate America before attending their first R-rated movie. It is vastly more productive for Corporate America to redefine products and services to eliminate the need for entry level labor at any age entirely than to solve the tactical problems incurred by dipping into ever younger workers.



Perhaps it’s fitting that this topic comes up on the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that basically provided the impetuous for labor condition reform. I just read the whole history in Heather Cox Richardson’s daily letter. Made the hair on my neck stand up.


Bottom line paying labor more would fix most of our problems. Over time as inflation comes down higher labor rates wont create much inflation and will enrich our nation.

China had low inflation and a very high growth rate for decades. It is called demand side economics.

The supply side cut most people off at the knees also cuts our nation off at the knees.

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The “JCs” that are constantly on the “news” now, crying “no-one wants to work” are the ones offering those lousy pay, no-skill jobs. A few years ago, there was a pilot program to impose a work requirement on able bodied Medicaid recipients. Michigan, being very Shiny at that time, jumped right on that program. Proponents among the (L&Ses) in Lansing said it was not about cutting Medicaid expense, it was entirely about forcing people to take the lousy pay, no-skill jobs that were going begging, even before the plague.


Exactly right, that last part about being fired. The anti-education faction has been denigrating public schools for “woke indoctrination”. I can certainly pull the threads together into a screed saying “free your spawn from woke indoctrination, and teach them the dignity of work”, promoting letting them leave school and run to the embrace of “JCs”.



@WatchingTheHerd your job perspective seems to be entirely office-oriented. I suspect that you have never worked on a factory floor.

The jobs described in the article are dirty, dangerous physical work that doesn’t require social, language or math skills. Such as cleaning blood and flesh off the machines in meat processing plants.

I don’t romanticize adolescents. Most societies put them to work. Many adolescents would probably be psycholgically better off working than going to school.

But our society, by law, forbids child labor. And many of the jobs are dangerous even for adults, let alone kids.



Here is a link to the Heather Cox Richardson post on Frances Perkins and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. March 25, 2023 - by Heather Cox Richardson