By the turn of the 20th century, child labor had become a controversial issue. Thanks to the efforts of labor activists
, educators, and supporters of the National Child Labor Committee,
the traditional notion that children -- especially poor children -- should be "useful" was giving way to the modern idea that children had a right to be protected, a right to be educated, and a right to enjoy their youth. These reformers argued that child labor not only victimized young workers, but it threated the nation's future, too. The next generation would have to be healthy and educated, they warned, to lead the way in a more complex world.
Reformers also argued that adults were victimized as well, especially lower-skilled adults who competed with children for jobs -- they inevitably lost out since child workers were always cheaper to hire. In fact, according to the U. S. Industrial Commission, child labor not only led to adult unemployment, it led to lower wages for adults who worked in industries that hired children. It was a vicious circle, the Industrial Commission concluded: "Child labor is not only the cause of low adult wages but the product."
Ultimately, it would take more than reform campaigns and statistics to bring an end to child labor, as the 50 year effort to pass federal legislation suggests. Indeed, the invention of labor-saving machinery probably had more to do with pushing children out of mines, mills, and factories, than the National Child Labor Committee did. The pneumatic tube replaced cash girls and boys in department stores, machinery replaced boys in the glass works, and mechanical coal sorters
made breaker boys obsolete.
And those who were not automated out of a job were often replaced by new immigrants who desperately needed the work.
Protective legislation was most successful when it came to moving the youngest workers out of factories. In fact by 1910 many states (outside of the South) had laws on the books prohibiting the employment of young children in hazardous workplaces. Adolescents, however, were another story: Working-class teenagers remained on the job. As late as 1920 they were still more likely to be full-time wage-earners than full-time students, especially if they were boys. In their case it would take the collapse of the economy in 1929 -- and the years of crippling depression that followed -- to create the conditions necessary to push teenage workers out of the factory and into the classroom.