Far from a product of the Industrial Revolution, child labor has existed since the beginning of time. When the productivity of labor is hopelessly low, parents naturally think of children as economic actors who can contribute to the well-being of their families. Without their children’s participation in the family’s work, the entire household could suffer terrible privation. This is a fact of life in poor, low-productivity societies that no "progressive" legislation can wish away. As Anna Krueger writes, "The issue of child labor is vexing: there are legitimate issues of intolerable working conditions, but employment of children may provide food that prevents a family from starving. In some instances, also, it may provide girls with an alternative to forced early
marriages." Even the International Labor Organization conceded in a 1997 report, "Poverty, however, emerges as the most compelling reason why children work. Poor households need the money, and children commonly contribute around 20 to 25 percent of family income. Since by definition poor households spend the bulk of their income on food, it is clear that the income provided by working children is critical to their survival."
To say that legislation can bring about an end to child labor is akin to saying that someone’s fever could be cured by dousing his thermometer in ice. The only way child labor can come to a genuine end is when the need for it has dwindled or disappeared. In societies where the productivity of labor has risen sufficiently – in other words, when the labor of fewer people is now necessary to perform the same amount of work as before – the contribution of children to the productive process no longer carries the same urgency. In wealthy societies like these, parents have the luxury of keeping their children at home, and in our own case, even providing them with over twelve years of formal education by age 18. Again, this outcome could not have been wished into existence. It had to be
brought about through a dramatic increase in the productivity of labor – in other words, by the capital investment that occurs on the unhampered market.
Those who, out of a combination of legitimate humanitarian concern and unfortunate economic ignorance, attempt to accelerate this process by means of legislation prohibiting child labor only add to the very misery they claim to be alleviating. It is only because such humanitarians have spent their lives in the fantastically wealthy capitalist societies of the West that they could have failed to realize that dire poverty, which makes child labor inevitable, has been the lot of the entire human race for the great majority of its history. The fact is, legislation or no legislation, the typical family in a very poor country still needs the income the child’s work brings. If the law prevents their children from being employed legally, then – supposing they do not want to starve – they
are likely to employ their children illegally, where conditions are almost certain to be far worse. In fact, in exceedingly poor societies where liberal humanitarians have prohibited child labor, it is not uncommon to find that the children wind up in prostitution – hardly an improvement in their welfare, to say the least. In fact, Oxfam, the British charity, recently reported that when factory owners in Bangladesh gave in to pressure to fire child laborers, thousands starved or went into prostitution.