Mar 29, 2023

The child labor laws in Arkansas.

The child labor laws in Arkansas.
Photo by Camille Chen / Unsplash

Is the concern over the new laws justified?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 10 minutes.

We're breaking down some changes to child labor laws. Also, a reader asks about the topics I don't like writing about.

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In yesterday's reader question, I responded to someone proposing a hypothetical where President Biden pardoned Trump for alleged campaign finance crimes related to Stormy Daniels. I addressed the different ideas out there about Biden pardoning Trump in that case and others, but neglected to mention a real-world technicality about the hypothetical: Biden can pardon Trump for federal crimes, but not state crimes (like some of the charges he's likely to be facing in New York). I was mostly just having fun with the idea, but for all you pro-pardon folks, keep that in mind!

Quick hits.

  1. Former Vice President Mike Pence must appear before a grand jury investigating efforts to overturn the 2020 election on January 6th. (The ruling)
  2. The IRS reportedly visited the home of journalist Matt Taibbi around the same time he provided Congressional testimony on his Twitter files reporting, drawing accusations of intimidation. (The report)
  3. The U.S. said it will suspend data sharing with Russia on its nuclear arsenal. (The decision)
  4. U.S. prosecutors filed a revised indictment against Sam Bankman-Fried that includes a new bribery charge, alleging payment to Chinese officials to unfreeze his company's crypto assets. (The allegations)
  5. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Tesla CEO Elon Musk were among several prominent figures who co-signed a letter urging a pause on the training of nex-gen artificial intelligence, warning of unforeseen consequences. (The letter)

Today's topic.

Child labor laws. Earlier this month, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed HB1410, known as the "Youth Hiring Act of 2023." Most controversially, the bill allows teenagers under the age of 16 to start a job without getting a work permit through the Arkansas Department of Labor and Licensing.

Child labor laws are dictated by federal and state law. In Arkansas, you can hire any teenager 14 years and older, though there are restrictions on how much they can work and which jobs they can take. Previously, teenagers younger than 16 had to send the application to the state’s Department of Labor and Licensing, with signatures from the parents and businesses, and then wait for approval to take a job. Now, that part of the process has been removed.

Arkansas's bill is not unique. States across the country, facing labor shortages, are looking for ways to make it easier to hire teenagers. In Minnesota, there is a bill to allow 16 and 17 year olds to work in the construction industry; in Iowa, legislators are considering a bill to permit 14 and 15-year-olds to work in freezers and meat coolers, which is currently prohibited; in Ohio, legislators just passed a law allowing teenagers to work until 9 p.m. on school nights.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Labor announced a crackdown on child labor after saying they've seen a 69% increase of illegally employed kids since 2018. And in February, it fined a company in Arkansas that was caught employing children as young as 13 who were cleaning saws with caustic chemicals in meat-packing plants. The New York Times also recently published an investigative report on large U.S. companies employing migrant children in dangerous, grueling jobs across the country.

Gov. Sanders defended the legislation, saying Arkansas "believes protecting kids is most important, but doing so with arbitrary burdens on parents to get permission from the government for their child to get a job is burdensome and obsolete" and emphasizing that "all child labor laws will still apply and we expect businesses to comply just as they are required to do now."

Today, we're going to take a look at the debate around the Arkansas bill and others like it, then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right support the proposed legislation, arguing that teenagers benefit from work and there is too much red tape right now.
  • Some argue the left is being hysterical about rather minor changes.
  • Others say these changes are necessary to meet the labor shortage and create more opportunity for teenagers.

In Reason, J.D. Tuccille said critics were "losing their mind" over Arkansas making it "a bit easier for teens to work."

"Predictably, the usual suspects piled on, accusing state lawmakers of sacrificing children to Mammon." Tuccille wrote. But Arkansas is "hardly alone," and "the move might not only fill jobs, it could also improve young Americans' prospects for future prosperity." Critics cited the danger of "illegal child labor involving migrant teens" to attack "eased legal employment." Yet Arkansas is "meeting the standard set by other states with its new work rules, it's also, as Vox's [Ellen] Ioanes conceded, in good company in seeking to reduce barriers to teen employment."

"Importantly, more opportunities mean not just more workers, but potentially greater prosperity for teens who gain early job experience," Tucille wrote. Economist Raj Chetty’s research "indicates a strong correlation between teenage participation in the labor force and upward mobility. It's a connection that's been made multiple times in the past." There is "a lot of benefit to be had" from letting teenagers earn income, and would be a "lot to sacrifice to satisfy critics who have their panties in a bunch over very minor reform." In fact, "loosening the rules even further would be a great idea."

The Washington Examiner editorial board said "it's a good thing" Arkansas just made child labor easier.

"Most successful adults began working as teenagers," the board said. "Perhaps they delivered newspapers or manned the till at a McDonald's. Perhaps they spent weeks in the summer detasseling corn or their Saturdays directing cars into parking spots before college football games. But whatever they did, all those people who worked as teenagers learned at a young age an important lesson for adulthood: that they needed to work, earn, and be responsible for making their own way in life." Arkansas and Gov. Sanders "should be commended" for making it easier for more teenagers to work.

"Several liberals are freaking out over the new law," but it "should be a model" for national child labor policy. This isn't "sending 8-year-olds to coal mines," it just "brings Arkansas into line with several other states, not all of them Republican." Some opponents claim "permitting allows a state to verify each child's age," but birth certificates and W-9 tax forms already do this. "There is nothing magical about a state permit application that makes it impossible to lie or makes one's age official — it's just one more redundant piece of paperwork that irritatingly slows legitimate hiring."

In Fox News, Arkansas resident Nick Stehle defended Sanders from attacks.

"Gov. Sanders stands accused of doing the bidding of big business, putting profits ahead of children’s education and development," Stehle said. Some prominent influencers "are circulating misleading pictures of her signing a bill next to pre-teen children, falsely alleging that it’s this reform," or "linking the policy to stories about illegally employed young kids – hired in violation of the state’s requirements – or deceitfully accusing Gov. Sanders of wanting to get minority children working in meat-packing plants."

These attacks have "no resemblance to reality." We're talking about "bussing tables a couple nights a week after school, working the check-out counter on weekends, and staying busy during summer." And the main push didn't come from big businesses, but from "families like mine." We "want more of the freedom that lets our children flourish" and "are not a state that values perpetual adolescence and government control... As a parent, I couldn’t be more proud of my state, and I know we’re doing the bidding of families, not business."

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left criticize the changes, saying the U.S. is seeing a surge of child labor in dangerous industries and actually needs to be cracking down.
  • Some agree that teenagers can benefit from work, but say these laws make exploitation of minors easier, too.
  • Others say too much work is actually a bad thing for young teens, and can hurt teenagers' long-term prospects.

The New York Times editorial board wrote about "the dangerous race to put more children to work."

In February, the Department of Labor announced "it had discovered 102 teenagers working in hazardous conditions," including minors who "were working with dangerous chemicals and cleaning brisket saws and head splitters; three of them suffered injuries, including one with caustic burns. Ten of those children worked in Arkansas." Rather than taking action to prevent further "exploitation of children," Arkansas "went the opposite direction." Gov. Sanders made it "easier for companies to put children to work."

Arkansas "is at the vanguard of a concerted effort by business lobbyists and Republican legislators" to roll back regulations to "protect children from abuse." At least nine other states are pushing bills "that would expand work hours for children, lift restrictions on hazardous occupations, allow them to work in locations that serve alcohol, or lower the state minimum wage for minors." The response from states is not to "protect children from exploitation, but instead make it legal." The real target for lobbyists is not after school jobs at the hardware store, but "a labor force that includes many unaccompanied migrant children" working in factories.

Also in The Times, Terri Gerstein asked if we were "really arguing about whether 14-year-olds should work in meatpacking plants?"

These rollbacks are "happening just when the country is experiencing a surge of child labor violations" on a scale we haven't seen for years. "Recent investigative reporting by The New York Times and Reuters has exposed migrant children as young as 12 working at car factories, meat processors and construction sites; household-name companies generally avoid liability through the use of sometimes sketchy subcontractors and staffing agencies." The Labor Department also said "it had seen a 69 percent increase since 2018; it found that in the last fiscal year, 835 companies employed more than 3,800 children in violation of federal labor laws."

It's not just "hazardous work," but "less shocking yet still deeply troubling" cases of teens working schedules "far longer and later than what's legally permissible." Yes, we're facing a labor shortage caused by Covid and a decline in immigration, but "some business interests and lawmakers would apparently prefer to expand the pool of exploitable workers to vulnerable children rather than improve working conditions to attract age-appropriate employees." Research shows meatpacking jobs would be more attractive "if they paid just a little better, around $2.85 more per hour," but "raising wages, providing benefits and giving signing bonuses would mean slimmer profits."

In The Los Angeles Times, Steven Greenhouse said "there couldn't be a worse time" to roll back child labor laws.

Not only are we seeing a spike in child labor violations, but "U.S. schoolchildren moved backward academically during the pandemic. Many studies have found that students who work 20 or more hours a week are more likely to drop out of school and have their grades decline, not to mention that they’re often too exhausted to do schoolwork or stay awake in class," Greenhouse wrote. "Dropping out can lead to worse economic prospects. High school dropouts had median weekly earnings of just $626 in 2021, 23% below the $809 earned by high school graduates (without college). Workers with a bachelor’s degree earn $1,334 a week, more than double what high school dropouts earn."

The move to ease these laws is "an effort long backed by the libertarian Koch brothers and their network" and "sends a strong message to employers that hiring young teens is just fine." Teenagers doing five to 15 hours of paid work "in safe jobs can have worthwhile experiences," but "rolling back laws so that they can work six hours on school days or until 11 p.m. can have broader negative consequences. It’s important that teens have enough time for school, sports and other activities and enough time with friends and families and for sleep."

My take.

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  • I worked all throughout my teenage years, and it had a very positive impact on me.
  • The freakout over these laws seem hugely overblown, and is a good example of why so many conservatives distrust the media.
  • Most of the proposals being floated seem fine to me, and are separate from concerns about migrant children being exploited.

My life experiences have definitely pushed me to see the value of working as a teenager. When I was growing up, my parents would send my older brothers and me to Texas to live with my cousin and attend what we called "man camp." As an angsty 14 year-old, I didn’t exactly need to be pushed out the door.

My cousin owned a cactus nursery and worked as a mechanic, and I spent most of my days outside in the brutal heat, changing tires, digging holes in the desert, and learning to drive stick shift trucks or shoot a rifle when work was over. I remember being absolutely exhausted at the end of the day, and I remember how proud I was when my cousin wrote me a $1,500 check at the end of the summer for my work. I loved it there, and I've gone to visit for weeks or months at a time every year since. Most days, I actually miss being outside and doing manual labor.

My first real job I had after "babysitting" (watching TV while a neighbor’s kid slept) was at a dog shelter when I was about 14 or 15. I had to wake up before the sun rose and spent my days mopping up urine and defecation, transferring scary and aggressive dogs through various pens, feeding them, and interacting with people dropping off their pets or coming to adopt. The job sucked and it smelled bad and I was tired and I made money and I learned how to wake up before 6 a.m and go to work. It also motivated me to have a different job than that when I got older.

Then I did all the normal teenage jobs: Bus boy, lifeguard, snow shoveling, and paper boy. By the time I was 16 and had my license, I was posting fliers like the one below around town. I basically invented Uber as a junior in high school:

An old flier I found at my mom's house recently.

So this was the context for me when I first saw the headlines percolating about this bill in Arkansas and child labor more generally. Maybe I’m just a cynical old man now, but I found the entire news cycle a tad bit overblown.

Instead of preventing “further exploitation of children," the Times said, Arkansas "went the opposite direction." Arkansas is "leading the charge" to weaken labor protections, an article in The Guardian said. "Are we actually arguing about whether 14-year-olds should work in meatpacking plants?" Terri Gerstein asked above (under "What the left is saying"). "Gotta admit – loosening child labor laws was not on my Top 10 List for our CA legislative session this year," California Gov. Gavin Newsom snarked about the bill.

And then... I read the actual details of the story. Which, on the whole, seem totally reasonable.

The right’s framing about this is basically on the money: Arkansas is removing one item of paperwork from a process for 14 and 15 year olds to get hired, which will undoubtedly make it a little easier for them to go through the process of applying and onboarding at a job. That's... it.

This isn't 1900. They aren't sending kids into the coal mine or condemning them to a life of low-wage work. In fact, the opposite is true. As Reason's J.D. Tuccille noted (under "What the right is saying"), teenage work is one of the best ways to enhance someone's upward mobility. It is, quite literally, one of the surest paths out of difficult and grueling jobs. That's to say nothing of the positive impact working with people in real life would probably have on a generation addicted to their phones, overrun with anxiety, and increasingly lacking purpose or hope.

Besides, it's 2023. If a teenager is being mistreated at their job they are more likely to make their boss infamous on TikTok than they are to suffer silently. That’s to say nothing of the single or low-income parents who would certainly benefit from a teenager being able to work and help support their family.

And, not to veer off into media criticism, but the overblown hysterics on this story in the media — almost exclusively from liberal writers and journalists — is a great example of why so few conservatives trust the legacy media anymore. The bad press probably comes from many of them simply loathing Sarah Huckabee Sanders, or maybe a lack of familiarity with the actual bill, but there is no honest reason to conflate what she did with the exploitation of migrant children across the country.

Corporate behemoths like the ones exposed by The Times and Reuters who are genuinely exploiting children are not going to be stopped by work permit applications. Most of them are exploiting children after they are hired with long hours or by placing them in dangerous situations, or both. The migrant children in The Times investigative report are known to the government, and their presence here is more about immigration failures than child work permit applications.

This is a separate issue from what's happening in Arkansas, and we should be able to talk about them as separate issues. And not for nothing, but making legal hiring easier is actually a good way to reduce the kind of under the table, illegal hiring that we are seeing surge right now.

Work is good. We should embrace legislation that cuts some red tape for teenagers to get jobs of their choosing, especially considering the need for these workers right now.

Do I wish people were getting better pay and benefits? Of course. Do I think the government should step up enforcement and investigation of child labor violations? Absolutely. Do I think a 15-year-old should have to apply for a work permit from the state Capitol to get a job at a restaurant? No. And further, I don’t think teenagers occasionally working until 9 p.m. on a school night (proposed in Ohio) or 14-year-olds working in freezers (proposed in Iowa) is the end of the world, either.

There is plenty of room to hold all these views at once, and we should give it a shot.

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Your questions, answered.

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Tangle: Great question. I think the topics I like to write about the least are those tied to macroeconomic issues. For instance, inflation is one of the most-covered topics in Tangle, but I find it pretty dry and often feel out of my depth — partly because I never worked as an economics reporter, and partly because economists are notoriously vague, frequently at odds with each other, and often wrong.

There are other issues I don't love writing about because they're so emotionally charged. I genuinely don't like covering Trump anymore. I used to love writing about his presidency because I found it novel and fascinating, and he regularly shifted the Overton window. But now it's impossible to write a sentence about him without his supporters or critics finding something to be enraged about. Trans issues are also tough. Even more so than with Trump, people on opposite sides see the folks they disagree with as fundamentally evil, and it's increasingly hard to break through with reason or empathy.

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Under the radar.

Is remote work receding from American life? Only about 5% of workers were remote before the pandemic, but once Covid-19 hit, remote work surged, and countless think pieces were written about how work would never be the same and offices may never be normal again. Now, though, millions fewer Americans are already working remotely compared to last year, and remote work seems to be moving closer and closer to pre-COVID levels. In 2021, 60.1% of establishments had employees rarely or never working from home. But last year, that number was up to 72.5%. Meanwhile just 13% of job postings in March of 2023 were for remote positions, down from 17% in March of 2022 (but still well above the 4% pre-pandemic rate). Axios has the story.


  • 100+. The number of cases involving children aged 13 to 17 who were illegally cleaning meat processing plants in 13 states, according to a recent Labor Department report.
  • 3,876. The number of cases of minors who were employed illegally in 2022, according to Labor Department data.
  • 1,012. The number of cases of minors who were employed illegally in 2015, according to Labor Department data.
  • Three. The maximum number of hours 14 and 15 year olds can work on a school day, according to federal law.
  • $19. The average hourly wage for teenagers in the United States, according to ZipRecruiter.

The extras.

Have a nice day.

Yesterday, I wrote about some of the divisiveness and intensity around the protests in Israel. A Tangle reader living in Israel whom I correspond with regularly wrote in to ask if they could share some "hopeful" stories. In reading them, I realized they are precisely the kind of stories that never make the news, so I wanted to share them here:

A neighbor of mine recorded some conversations from a protest rally. Some anti-reform protestors were talking to Charedim [religious conservatives] and some to what you would call "ultra-nationalists" and everyone seemed respectful and empathetic. My wife's kidney-recipient, a thoroughly anti-reform Tel-Avivian, just made her usual pre-Passover call to see how we're doing and catch up (we're pro-reform, though we don't agree with some of the proposed laws)...

But the best story I heard is about two Israelis at a train station, one coming from an anti-reform rally, getting off, and another heading to a pro-reform rally, getting on. The fellow heading to the rally saw the fellow coming from, who was carrying an Israeli flag, slapped his head and said to himself "I should have brought my flag!" The other fellow, hearing him and knowing where he was going, held his flag out and said "Here, take mine."

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