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Remaking Childhood: Red State Edition
This one is complicated, and I’m not completely sure what I think of it.
Start with a piece of context: For years, a dangerous movement on the American political left has sought to remake childhood, proudly suggesting that 12 year-olds should be sexually active and sexually autonomous:
The California legislature is pursuing this premise from an extraordinary number of angles, fighting to protect the place of sexually explicit materials in public schools and declaring the state a sanctuary for children who want to medically and surgically alter their gender. With apologies for using a platform that not everyone can access, I can only find this video on Twitter; it shows the author of a bill to restrict the ability of parents to oppose school materials as he pretends that he can’t possibly answer hypothetical questions about the appropriateness of sexually explicit material in middle schools. In a politically polarized society, a push from the left to sexualize childhood is met by opposition from the right, coding opposition to sexy young children as a right-wing choice — a premise I think Harry Truman and JFK might have contested:
Suddenly, though, this message is all over social media:
These messages are not exactly false, and not entirely true. They take note of a real development, but strip away all the limits and caveats to fake up the creation of a 21st-century Upton Sinclair novel. But the effects of this successful legislation — this is where it gets complicated.
Start here (or here) with Iowa Senate File 542: signed into law in May, took effect on July 1. A bunch of the first-glance shocking details are more complicated than the outrage-farming Twitter takes suggest: 16 year-olds can serve alcohol in restaurants, with at least two adults to supervise, but not in bars; 15 year-olds can work on assembly lines in school-based work training programs, with parental permission; teenagers can work until 11 p.m. in the summer, but not during the school year. Allowing a 16 year-old coffee shop waitress to bring you a beer strikes me as…not the end of the world?
But all of those details aside, the new Iowa law expands child labor (while ending some earlier measures allowing even younger workers to do a few jobs like migrant farm labor), and will, in fact, put 14 year-olds to work in what will look a great deal like adult settings. So red state legislatures are expanding child labor at the moment they’re banning gender mutila— uh, gender-affirming medical care for teenagers, and making that latter choice on the highly defensible grounds that teenagers lack the maturity to make decisions like that. So a 15 year-old working in a factory lacks the maturity to make adult decisions, is where we end up when we put all of this together.
These new child labor bills, which are advancing in several red states, are a project of the Foundation for Government Accountability, a conservative advocacy group in Florida. In a recent op-ed piece published on the Fox News website, the vice-president of communications for the FGA made this argument for the expansion of teen labor opportunities:
It harms teenagers when you discourage them from learning through work. Teens who work as little as one year will, in their 20s, have incomes that are 14-16% higher on average. Teenage work also leads to less property crime and drug use and higher graduation rates. Keeping a schedule, collaborating with others, discovering your skills and your shortcomings – these lessons complement what you learn in the classroom. When it comes to preparing teenagers for adulthood, the informal training of work strengthens formal education….
Nationwide, only 36% of teenagers between the ages of 16 and 19 participated in the labor force at the end of 2021, down from almost 60% in the 1970s. Can anyone honestly say that American teenagers are more responsible and well-rounded now than they were 50 years ago? Does anyone really believe most teenagers are better prepared for the rigors of adult life?
States should be doing everything they can to prepare teens for lives of meaning and contribution, including through that first weekend or summer job.
And I agree with every word of that, but then I have questions. A 15 year-old going to school 40 hours a week and working 28 hours a week has limited time for family dinners, for afterschool sports, for homework, for friends. It’s a positive development with questionable implications. In the last twenty years, what have we eroded more than family, and how much time in a child’s week should we set aside for that?
Beyond that question, though, the expansion of child labor threatens to erode the idea of childhood at a moment when the Scott Wieners of the world very much want to erode the idea of childhood. It arms the most dangerous shock troops in the culture wars. And of course it leads to headlines like this:
Some Republican opposition to the child labor bill in the Iowa legislature focused on just this problem:
Sen. Charlie McClintock, R-Alburnett, said lawmakers have emphasized protecting children. He said he spoken to Iowans in emails and at forums on issues like the new law prohibiting gender-affirming health care for transgender youth.
“And I say, well, these kids really don’t have the the wisdom at that age or the experience in life to make some of those decisions,” McClintock said. “So we as lawmakers have to intervene and try to guide them or look out for them and pass laws to do that. And so, if we’re going to do that — and I’m going to vote for things like that — it just seems that how can I now support a bill that would potentially put those same kids into unsafe work environments?”
So, yes: It’s positive for new high school graduates to show up at the entry point of adulthood ready to work, knowing how and being used to it. But I don’t think the discussion ends there.
Since first noticing the social media controversy last week, I’ve been asking Iowa state legislators and people at the Foundation for Government Accountability to discuss some of these questions, without the slightest hint of a reply. I’ll post their responses if I get any. In the meantime, here’s video of a debate on the bill that features one of its sponsors, Republican Senator Adrian Dickey:
More of this is coming. It should be discussed.
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