The GOP Pretends to Protect Children — While Literally Promoting Child Labor

Republicans say they want to “protect” kids by stopping them from learning about LGBTQ identity and racism. Yet they are simultaneously rolling back child labor laws to allow children to work in industrial laundries, construction sites, and meatpacking plants.

Republicans in multiple states have introduced strikingly similar pieces of legislation that will actively harm children by relaxing child labor regulations, putting them at greater risk of injury and exploitation. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

Look, it’s no surprise that as Republicans are growing louder about made-up “culture war” issues they’re also simultaneously renewing their push to give more money to the rich at the expense of everyone else. The marriage of conservative Christian social activists and Republican moneymen goes back, in its current form, at least to the 1970s, and arguably to the 1950s. Of course, the same dynamic, expressing itself in different ways, goes back much further. It’s one of the most stable features of American politics.

But sometimes the flagrant sanctimony gets to be too much, even by the low standards set by the modern GOP. This is one of those times.

Across the country, Republicans have made keeping kids “safe from transgenderism” one of their top priorities. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene has said the GOP needs to “protect children” from trans people and their supposed nefarious agenda. Greene, who is one of the Republican Party’s ideological leaders and a key bridge between Donald Trump and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, is far from alone. So far eight anti-trans bills have already become state law in 2023, with more to come. Republicans consistently justify such bills with innuendo about protecting children from trans predators or “groomers.”

They have used the same rhetoric in attempts to restrict drag shows, because nothing is more dangerous for children than watching performers dressed up in costumes pretending to be someone else. The drag hysteria has led not only to legislative attempts to restrict free expression, but to dangerous protests at children’s events. Meanwhile, Republicans have also made significant efforts over the past few years to eliminate discussions of homosexuality and racism from school and even university curricula. Of course Donald Trump is using the bully pulpit as the party’s leading presidential candidate to try to further stoke reactionary sentiment, attacking teachers and public schools in the process.

But Republicans’ professed desire to protect children disappears when faced with anything that might actually endanger them. Children are regularly murdered at school in mass shootings, a fact that has become too banal to even mention, so thoroughly have we given up hope that anyone in power will do anything to stop it. As long as the Republican Party is totally committed to allowing this state of affairs to continue, their claims about the need to protect children will remain a hollow joke.

Now Republicans in multiple states have introduced strikingly similar pieces of legislation that will actively harm children by relaxing child labor regulations, putting them at greater risk of injury and exploitation. In addition, studies have found that in addition to potential dangers at specific workplaces, child labor in and of itself puts children at greater health risk.

Some of the details vary by state. In Ohio and New Jersey, state-level Democrats joined with Republicans to expand the number of hours teenagers can work and allow them to work later into the night. Elsewhere Republicans alone are pushing children to work more. Minnesota wants to let sixteen-year-olds work on construction sites. Arkansas just reduced the permits required to hire minors, a move experts say will make it easier for companies to plead ignorance if they’re busted violating parts of the child labor regulations that remain. Iowa legislation would let kids as young as fourteen work in meatpacking freezers, while denying them the right to workers’ compensation if they get hurt. Coincidentally, a major sanitation company in Wisconsin was just fined for hiring children as young as thirteen to clean food processing facilities. The kids used dangerous chemicals to clean sharp tools, and some of them sustained serious injuries.

Republicans seem ready to push ahead with further deregulation even after the New York Times published an exposé on the extensive exploitation of immigrant children in dangerous jobs across the country. At first it might seem like simple hypocrisy that conservatives claim to be so concerned about “protecting” children in some ways while displaying such undisguised carelessness in others. But in fact it is perfectly consistent with their ideology. For the economy to continue to function the way it does now, some children need to be taught early on that their role in life is to do difficult, dangerous work for very little pay. If they come from poor families, that will do, but if they’re also isolated, vulnerable, and beyond many legal protections because they came from another country, even better.

Meanwhile the other children, who will grow up to have more influence in society, need to be presented with alternative explanations for the horrible reality of the country’s history, explanations that minimize the oppression and exploitation that built it and sustain it today. This explains how the blanket opposition to “wokeness” in schools can coexist with a push to bring back child labor.

Ultimately the problem runs deeper than conservative hypocrisy. It goes all the way down to the political and economic system they’re defending.