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A Century of Denying Child Labor in America


“A Century of Denying Child Labor in America” analyzes the influence of agrarian ideology on agricultural child labor policy in the United States over the course of the twentieth century. The project places agrarianism at the heart of the child labor question by arguing that agrarian sensibility uncompromisingly viewed children’s farm labor as a beneficial and healthful activity, and a natural and integral part of the rural family economy—even among children who did not live on family farms. Throughout the twentieth century, rural parents and agricultural interests invoked reason that was rooted in agrarianism to limit or thwart legislation that aimed at regulating agricultural child labor. As a result, children’s agricultural labor has never been regulated on a par with that of other sectors.

This dissertation demonstrates the strength of agrarian reason and reveals the ramifications for working children by tracing the evolution of the agricultural exemption to the child labor provision of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. This project challenges conventional narratives that mark the New Deal as the end point for the history of child labor in America. It moves the discussion beyond the 1930s and pushes it outside the bounds of eastern industrial America. In doing so, it draws out the experiences of racially and ethnically diverse groups of children while shedding light on the power of cultural myths to influence public policy. In challenging conventional narratives, this project contributes significantly to our understanding of the history of American politics, labor, and childhood in the twentieth century. It is the first project to argue that child labor was a critical component in FDR’s 1937 battle with the Supreme Court; to analyze the nation’s increased dependence on child farm labor during World War II; and to highlight the ways that children were activists in the United Farm Worker labor movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Moreover, this project calls attention to the fact that the child labor problem is not yet solved.

Ultimately, this dissertation demonstrates the ways that agrarian reason veiled exploitation, denied children legal protection, and perpetuated multi-generational cycles of poverty and structural inequality that were in contradistinction to the tenets of agrarianism.

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