Table of Contents
- What is the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act of 1916?
- The Child Labor Act of 1916: Background
- The History of the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act
- The Impact of the Keating-Owen Act
- Lesson Summary
The Keating-Owen Child Labor Act of 1916 represented a major step toward outlawing child labor in the United States and also contributed to a change in perceptions regarding the scope and role of the federal government. Although many New England states had child labor laws since the first half of the 1800s, the Keating-Owen Act was the first attempt by Congress to restrict the use of child labor nationwide. It was based on a draft proposal by Senator Albert Beveridge in 1906.
Addressing the exploitation of child labor was one of many reforms targeted during the Progressive Era. From about 1890 until the start of the Great Depression in 1929, progressives sought to improve American society as a whole. This was in response to the extreme wealth inequalities and abuses associated with the Gilded Age and the second industrial revolution which exploded following the Civil War. The Progressive Era coincided with the peak of the women's suffrage movement and efforts to ban alcohol. There were also numerous reforms designed to make the American political system more democratic and conserve the natural environment.
Many progressives saw child labor as a great social ill that stained the fabric of American society. In this time of extreme inequality and rapid industrialization, social welfare programs and workplace regulations were non-existent. Wages were painfully low, and it was essential that every member of a family worked to earn an income. Factory and mill workers, including children, typically toiled for twelve hours or longer per day and for seven days per week. Serious injuries and chronic illnesses were common.
The rapid industrial expansion in the United States in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century occurred at the same time as the American population began to shift from rural areas to urban centers. Although child labor had always been a feature of farm life, this had taken place within the setting of the home and under the supervision of parents. The second industrial revolution on the other hand witnessed the emergence of children laboring in dangerous conditions outside of the home setting and not under the supervision of their caregivers. For most of these young laborers, playtime and schooling were unimaginable luxuries. Children and workers, in general, endured nonstop work until they were permanently disabled or dead.
The Progressive Era was a time when reformers pushed for a broad range of initiatives aimed at improving American society. Goals included reducing racial inequality, granting women the right to vote, and engineering American politics to be less corrupt as well as more democratic. Although taken for granted today, direct primaries and the direct election of senators by popular vote originated in the Progressive Era. Purging the United States of child labor was one objective among many for the Progressives.
Efforts to end child labor in America started at the state level, but this proved challenging, and these efforts were resisted heavily in southern states. Repeated failures at the state level motivated progressive reformers to seek solutions at the federal level. However, in the early 20th century, the role of the federal government was far more limited than it has become today. Most constitutional scholars during the progressive period believed laws attempting to restrict child labor would be ruled unconstitutional.
In 1904, the National Child Labor Committee focused its work on collecting evidence and documenting the terrible conditions of child laborers in order to force the federal government to act. The reformer Lewis Hine took advantage of improvements in photography and a nascent mass media to capture the abuses of child labor which had largely remained unseen by the American public. In addition to his undercover photos, Hine conducted countless interviews with young laborers in order to push the federal government to act. However, it is important to understand that the accepted role of the federal government in the early years of the twentieth century was far more limited than what Americans have come to expect in recent years. Many constitutional scholars and academics at that time firmly believed that any federal law to regulate or ban child labor would be swiftly overturned as unconstitutional.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, nearly two million children worked in manufacturing, agriculture, mines, stores, or on the streets. Most were under the age of fourteen. The majority were the children of poor immigrants and they endured harsh conditions day after day. Looking back, it may seem surprising there was not an immediate outpouring of empathy. Banning child labor was especially unpopular in the South, where it was framed as another attempt by northern states to exert control over southern states.
Although Progressives were at the peak of their power, the political climate in Congress in 1915-1916 lacked widespread support for the ban. President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, had little sympathy for the movement to ban child labor, and he personally believed any law would quickly be thrown out by the courts. On the other hand, leading members of his party grew concerned about the lack of social reforms under Wilson and how that may impact upcoming elections. Chief Justice Evans even eventually endorsed the idea of banning child labor, and this helped sway Wilson's opinion. Ultimately, it was political expediency rather than a sincere concern about child labor that facilitated the passage of federal legislation.
The Keating-Owen Act functioned as a tool to limit or restrict the use of child labor but without stating that child labor was illegal per se. It is named after two Democratic representatives, Edward Keating of Colorado and Robert Latham Owen of Oklahoma. It was strongly supported by progressive reformers as well as among northern and western states. However, it faced intense opposition from southern mill owners who were highly dependent upon child labor.
The act prohibited the shipment or delivery of goods and services made by workers under the age of fourteen in factories, canneries, and shops, as well as by workers under the age of sixteen in mines. It also stated that workers under the age of sixteen could only work between 6:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. for a maximum of eight hours and no more than six days per week.
Due to the perceptions of that time surrounding the limited role of the federal government, the act uniquely focused on restricting sales by businesses that used child labor rather than an explicit ban on using child labor. The wording was specially designed to rely on the interstate commerce clause of the constitution that does clearly afford Congress the right to control commerce among the states. Congress could only restrict child labor using the powers explicitly afforded to it by the constitution. This is why the act does not actually ban child labor, as most leaders at the time believed Congress lacked the authority to legislate such a ban.
The general impact of the law was its creation of a new paradigm for federal involvement in social issues which had previously been viewed as the exclusive purview of state governments. The efforts leading up to the Act and its passage ensured that ending child labor had convincingly become an objective of the federal government.
As expected, the law was immediately challenged, and the Supreme Court struck it down in Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918). The court found the law unconstitutional on the grounds that Congress had exceeded its authority provided by the interstate commerce clause and the act was intruding on the right of the states to regulate local trade as guaranteed in the tenth amendment. In addition, the Supreme Court felt the law went too far in attempting to regulate the means of production, a topic which was especially sensitive as it occurred concurrently with the rise of Marxism and communism. The Supreme Court argued that the interstate commerce clause covers only the sale of goods and it does not include manufacturing.
In spite of this setback, Congress attempted to retaliate by imposing a ten percent tax on businesses found to be using child laborers. There was also an attempt to enact a constitutional amendment to ban child labor, but it lacked support in southern states, and it was seen by many as an overreach of power by the federal government.
Due to the political climate at that time and older beliefs about the appropriate role of the federal government in American life, additional legislation related to child labor would have to wait. It was not until after the peak of the Great Depression and the massive expansion in the scope of the federal government under President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the United States would finally put an end to child labor. In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was passed in order to establish the first federal minimum wage of twenty-five cents per hour and it mandated a forty-four-hour work week. A ban on child labor was written into this law, but it was largely a strategy by Roosevelt to ensure the votes he needed in Congress for the law as a whole to pass.
Although the FLSA officially put an end to child labor, it had already been in a steep decline due to the reduced need for unskilled labor in American industries. Child labor in mills, factories, and mines had largely evaporated on its own accord due to improvements in technology and therefore a need for fewer workers. At the same time, youth employment shifted dramatically to the services sector, and it became more freelance in nature. Minors were and are still working, but as casual babysitters or doing yardwork rather than toiling in the harsh conditions of an industrializing America.
Similar to the Keating-Owen Act of 1916, the FLSA was immediately challenged in the courts, but it survived and remains the law today in the United States. In fact, even the original decision in Hammer v. Dagenhart, which had struck down the Keating-Owen Act, was overruled in 1941.
The Keating-Owen Child Labor Act of 1916 represented a major step toward outlawing child labor in the United States and also contributed to a change in popular beliefs about the role of the federal government. Addressing child labor was one of many reforms of the Progressive Era. From approximately 1890 until 1929, progressives sought to improve American society as a whole.
In 1904, the National Child Labor Committee gathered evidence about the plight of child laborers in order to force the federal government to act. Along with the work of other reformers, these efforts resulted in the passage of the Keating-Owen Act in 1916, which prohibited the sale as well as the shipment or delivery of goods produced by child laborers. In order to pass the law, Congress relied on the authority granted to it by the interstate commerce clause of the constitution. The law, however, was challenged, and the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional in Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918) on the grounds that the interstate commerce clause included the power to regulate the sale of goods, but that authority did not extend to manufacturing. In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) finally put an end to the use of child labor in the United States.
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
The Keating-Owen Act of 1916 was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court shortly after its passage. In this narrow sense, the law failed to achieve its objectives. However, it was successful in turning child labor into a national political issue. More importantly to the long-term historical development of the United States, the act greatly altered perceptions about the scope and role that the federal government should play in the lives of Americans. This set the stage for many later reforms, including child labor to, ultimately, be successful.
Although restrictions on the use of child labor were first implemented in some New England states beginning in the 1830s, it was not banned nationwide until a century later. Because the Keating-Owen Act was ruled unconstitutional, the United States did not have an effective ban or restriction on child labor until the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938.
Already a member? Log InBack
I would definitely recommend Study.com to my colleagues. It’s like a teacher waved a magic wand and did the work for me. I feel like it’s a lifeline.