01 / 03
Technological Progress Freed Kids from Hard Labor

Blog Post | Science & Technology

Technological Progress Freed Kids from Hard Labor

Washing machines and tractors freed America's children to receive an education.

New Technologies Decreases Child Labor

It’s summertime and across the United States, children are away from school. The custom of long breaks in the school year dates to when most Americans worked in agriculture and often needed their children’s help on the farm. Of course, most children simply didn’t attend school, instead helping with housework and grueling farm labor year-round. In 1820, for example, primary school enrollment in the United States was just over 40 percent. That percentage rapidly shot upward in the coming decades, reaching 100 percent by 1870. But even then, many children didn’t make it past elementary school. In 1870, U.S. mean years of schooling stood at just 4.28. That number has risen steadily ever since. What changed? Technology, for one thing.

In his book Enlightenment Now, Harvard University professor Steven Pinker recounts how technology helped get boys off the farm and into the classroom. He quotes a tractor advertisement from 1921:

By investing in a Case Tractor and Ground Detour Plow and Harrow outfit now, your boy can get his schooling without interruption, and the Spring work will not suffer by his absence. Keep the boy in school—and let a Case Kerosene Tractor take his place in the field. You’ll never regret either investment.

As more farms adopted efficiency-enhancing agricultural devices like kerosene tractors, more boys attended school instead of working the fields. For girls, the huge time savings brought on by labor-saving household devices played a similar role. As running water, electricity, washing machines, and other modern conveniences spread, time spent on housework plummeted. Pinker’s book also contains a telling chart documenting the change.

Most of the work replaced by those technologies had traditionally fallen to mothers—and to their daughters. The time freed up by innovation enabled more girls to attend school.

Washing machines and tractors have accomplished more than just cleaning clothes and ploughing fields. They also freed America’s children to receive an education.

Today, there are still children kept from school by household labor requirements. The burden disproportionately falls on girls. According to the United Nations, data from 42 countries show that rural girls are more likely to be out of school than rural boys. In rural Sub-Saharan Africa, the U.N. data also shows that girls often spend more time gathering wood and water than boys—time that could be spent in a classroom instead.

Fortunately, access to running water and electricity is rapidly spreading across the globe. As more households gain access to modern technologies, more children will leave behind backbreaking physical labor for school books and studying.

This also appeared in Cato At Liberty.

Blog Post | Wealth & Poverty

Low-Cost Private Schools Are a Lifeline for the Poor

Increasing access to affordable, high-quality education leads to better futures for children in poverty.

Twenty years ago this week – on Indian Republic Day, 26 January 2000 – I wandered into the slums behind the Charminar, in the Old City of Hyderabad, and my life changed forever.

Building on my PhD at what is now the UCL Institute of Education, I had become an expert on private education. Twenty years ago, everyone knew that private education was just for the elite and upper middle classes and I was in India doing consultancy work for the International Finance Corporation, the private arm of the World Bank, evaluating the elite private schools in the area. However, for whatever reason I had always felt that my life should be about serving less privileged communities.

So, on a day off from consultancy, I went into Hyderabad’s slums, down an alleyway and found a small school in a residential building. It wasn’t a state school, but a low-cost private one, charging in those days about $1 a month. Then I found another, and another, and soon I was connected to a federation of 500 of these low-cost private schools, serving poor and low-income communities across the region. I spent as much time as I could in these schools after finishing my daily meetings in the elite colleges that had initially brought me to Hyderabad. I watched lesson after lesson and witnessed young energetic teachers educating classrooms full of children, often in extremely impressive ways.

I remember going back to my hotel room in an upmarket part of the city and thinking that maybe the different parts of my life could fit together after all. I was an expert in private education, and in India private education seemed as much about the poor and disadvantaged as anyone. My life felt suddenly complete.

For many years I ploughed a lonely furrow, trying to convince those with power and influence that private education was good for the poor. Now, 20 years later, the extraordinary, disruptive revolution of low-cost private schools that is sweeping across the developing world is increasingly acknowledged, and sometimes even respected.

In both urban slums and rural villages, poorer parents are abandoning public schools en masse and sending their children to low-cost private schools, typically created by educational entrepreneurs. These private schools are ubiquitous. In Lagos State, Nigeria, for instance, there are 14,000 low-cost private schools, enrolling 2.12 million children, some 70% of preschool and primary aged children. Research from Nairobi (Kenya), Kampala (Uganda) and Accra (Ghana) gives similar results – the highest percentage is in Kampala, where 84% of primary aged children in poor areas are in private education.

Similarly, in urban India at least 70% of children are in independent private schools, while the comprehensive Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) shows 30% of rural children in private schools, a figure that is growing each year. Extrapolation from recent studies indicates there are roughly 92 million children in India who attend around 450,000 low-cost private schools.

The private schools are better than the state schools, where there is a lack of accountability; research has shown teachers in state schools typically teach only half of the time they are meant to. It’s no surprise that a review by the Department for International Development found children in low-cost private schools outperforming those in public schools, even after controlling for socio-economic background variables.

The private schools don’t typically suffer from gender bias and are affordable, even for families on the poverty line. And the majority of low-cost private schools are run as small businesses by educational entrepreneurs (with a minority run by religious organisations and charities), without subsidies from the state or philanthropic organisation. This means that low-cost private schools are already a fully sustainable solution to the problem of improving educational standards for all.

But there are still difficulties to be overcome. Sometimes governments try to close these schools altogether. More commonly they pass regulations that impose impossible conditions, such as the need for very large playgrounds in areas of urban overcrowding, or the insistence that all teachers must achieve the same level of certification and pay as their government counterparts, even though this would make it impossible for the schools to charge low fees.

So, the struggle continues. The work that began for me 20 years ago in the slums of India continues to this day. I’m currently building a team at the University of Buckingham to continue to champion the successes of low-cost private schools globally. Providing burdensome government regulation doesn’t get in the way, low-cost private schools and the education they provide for millions of poor children will continue to thrive.

This originally appeared in CapX.

Blog Post | Labor & Employment

Growth Is the Ultimate Weapon in Ending Child Labor

The total number of child laborers fell from 246 million in 2000 to 152 million in 2016.

Children's involvement in Child Labor.

Child labor was once ubiquitous. Take, for example, ancient Rome. As Mary Beard noted in her 2015 book SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, “Child labour was the norm. It is not a problem, or even a category, that most Romans would have understood. The invention of ‘childhood’ and the regulation of what work ‘children’ could do only came fifteen hundred years later and is still a peculiarly Western preoccupation.” Today, fewer than 10 percent of children worldwide have to work for a living. By and large, those that do, live in poor countries. Economic growth, which was key to eliminating child labor in the developed world, can achieve the same outcome in the developing one.

Prior to the mechanization of agriculture, which increased farm productivity, there were no food surpluses to sustain idle hands – including those of children. “The survival of the family demanded that everybody contributed,” writes Johan Norberg in his 2016 book Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future. As such, “it was common for working-class children to start working from seven years of age … In old tapestries and paintings from at least the medieval period, children are portrayed as an integral part of the household economy.… [with many working] hard in small workshops and in home-based industry,” Norberg continues.

As agricultural productivity increased, people no longer had to stay on the farm and grow their own food. They moved to the cities in search of a better life. At first, living conditions were dire, with many children working in mines and factories. By the middle of the 19th century, however, working conditions started to improve. Economic expansion led to increased competition for labor and wages grew. That, in turn, enabled more parents to forego their children’s labor and send them to school instead.

Between 1851 and 1911, for example, the share of British working boys and girls between the ages of 10 and 14 dropped from 37 and 20 percent respectively to 18 and 10 percent respectively. In the United States, the share of working 10 to 13 year olds fell from 12 percent in 1890 to 2.5 percent in 1930.

In his 2018 book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Harvard University professor Steven Pinker recounts how technology helped get boys off the farm and into the classroom. He quotes a tractor advertisement from 1921, “By investing in a Case Tractor and Ground Detour Plow and Harrow outfit now, your boy can get his schooling without interruption, and the Spring work will not suffer by his absence. Keep the boy in school—and let a Case Kerosene Tractor take his place in the field. You’ll never regret either investment.”

While legislation eventually enshrined in law what was already happening in practice and banned child labor, it is crucial to remember that it was only after a critical mass of children were pulled out of the labor force by their parents that people realized that life without child labor was possible. Similar processes are taking place in the rest of the world today.

According to the International Labor Organization’s 2017 Global estimates of child labor: results and trends 2012-2016 report, child laborers as a proportion of all children aged 5 to 17 dropped from 16 percent in 2000 to 9.6 percent in 2016. That year, 19.6 percent of children worked in Africa, 2.9 percent in the Arab states, 4.1 percent in Europe and Central Asia, 5.3 percent in the Americas and 7.4 percent in Asia and the Pacific.

The total number of child laborers fell from 246 million in 2000 to 152 million in 2016. That’s a reduction of 38 percent over a relatively short period of 16 years. In 2016, almost half of child laborers lived in Africa (72.1 million), which is the world’s poorest continent. Over 62 million child laborers lived in the populous Asia and the Pacific region. Some 10.7 million lived in North and South America, 1.2 million lived in the Arab States and 5.5 million lived in Europe and Central Asia.

As was the case throughout human history, agriculture continued to dominate child employment, accounting for 71 percent of child laborers. Services employed 17 percent of child laborers and industry 12 percent. In spite of continued population growth, the International Labor Organization expects that the total number of child laborers will continue to decline, falling to between 121 and 88 million in 2025. As such, the importance of economic growth in developing countries cannot be overstated.

This first appeared in CapX.