Iowa Republicans Want to Push Children Into the Workforce

The US’s miserly welfare state is known for forcing people to work rather than shielding them from the most exploitative jobs. And in Iowa, GOP lawmakers are taking the Dickensian cruelty further: they’re considering loosening restrictions on child labor.

The Iowa child-labor bill, approved by committee in early February, would permit children to work in industrial freezers and on assembly lines, and would shield employers from liability if they are injured or killed at work. (RAMI AL SAYED / AFP via Getty Images)

In his 1950 treatise on “social citizenship,” the British sociologist T. H. Marshall hoped that the emerging welfare state would not just cushion citizens from the savage cruelties of the market but also guarantee basic economic rights to every member of society. His optimism, at least in the United States, was dashed. Instead, we have ended up with a tangle of means-tested and categorical social policies designed less to shield people from the compulsions of the labor market than to force their participation.

Our most generous social supports — including health insurance, pensions, and paid leave — are offered as “fringe benefits” attached to some jobs. A second tier (including Social Security) structure social insurance benefits around wage-based contributions. And what’s left of direct assistance for the poor increasingly mandates employment — invariably low-wage and highly exploitative.

The “work first” logic of US social policy is animated by the “principle of less eligibility,” a remnant of Elizabethan poor law holding that alternatives to wage labor can never pay more than the leanest and meanest of jobs. And, as scholars Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward argued in Regulating the Poor (1971), that principle would and could be calibrated to labor market conditions: generous supports to dampen social unrest when labor markets were slack, miserly benefits when workers were needed.

The US deference to markets (and employers) is exacerbated by federalism — the discretion afforded states in setting eligibility thresholds and benefits. State legislatures, skittish about business investment and easily swayed by right-wing national lobbies, have proven reliable laboratories of autocracy and austerity.

Nowhere is this more nakedly on display than Iowa, once a “purple” state and now a purveyor of brazen anti-labor policies like loosening restrictions on child labor, which GOP lawmakers are now considering.

Iowa’s War on Workers

Iowa has been governed by a conservative Republican trifecta since 2016. When the pandemic hit, Governor Kim Reynolds and the Republican legislature chafed at the push to shut down the economy and only reluctantly passed the unemployment benefits extended and expanded by federal law. The Reynolds administration facilitated and celebrated Donald Trump’s April 2020 executive order (a document drafted by Midwestern meatpacking interests) ensuring “that processors of beef, pork, and poultry (‘meat and poultry’) in the food supply chain continue operating and fulfilling orders to ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans.”

And then, as soon as it could, the state pulled the plug on COVID-era protections and supports. In late 2020, Iowa Workforce Development retroactively adjusted its eligibility criteria for unemployment insurance and began clawing back benefits. In summer 2021, Iowa joined the roster of conservative states that bailed out of the federal pandemic programs prematurely — needlessly impoverishing and endangering their workers to score a thin political victory. Later that fall, it tightened the work-search requirements for those still unemployed.

It was straight out of the Elizabethan playbook: reluctantly offer social supports (a meager commitment, since the expanded and extended UI benefits were all federal dollars) when recession was unavoidable, and slash the generosity or accessibility of those benefits as soon as you wanted everyone back in the mills and mines.

In January, the Iowa legislature took another step down this Dickensian road, proposing a sweeping relaxation of its child-labor standards. The Iowa bill “relating to youth employment,” approved by committee in early February, would permit children as young as fourteen to work in industrial freezers and meat coolers. With a waiver from Iowa Workforce Development, children as young as fifteen could work on assembly lines and load or unload products weighing up to fifty pounds. The bill also loosens hours restrictions on work during the school year. And, of course, it shields employers from liability if a child worker is injured or killed at work — effectively stripping the right to workers compensation.

While masquerading as an effort to expand work opportunities for Iowa teenagers, the child-labor proposal has the fingerprints of the state’s low-wage, high-risk employers all over it. Only eight lobbies have publicly registered in support of the bill. Three of those (Americans for Prosperity, the Opportunity Solutions Project, and the National Federation of Independent Business) are notoriously anti-worker national groups that routinely trawl statehouses supporting such bills. The other five (the Iowa-Nebraska Farm Equipment Dealers Association, the Home Builders Association of Iowa, the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, the Iowa Hotel and Lodging Association, and the Iowa Restaurant Association) represent Iowa employers whose routine violation of child-labor laws would be washed away by regulatory waivers.

It is hard to underestimate the looming danger and damage.

Federal child-labor laws, first proposed over a century ago, were consistently rebuffed by the state legislatures — especially from the Jim Crow South — which also refused to ratify a constitutional amendment that would have prohibited the practice. It was not until the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1938 that federal law took action against “oppressive child labor.”

But the FLSA was riddled with holes. Large swaths of the economy (including agriculture) were left out, and the child-labor provisions regulated only the transport of goods across state lines, not their actual production. So even as the scope and reach of the FLSA expanded, the regulation of child labor depended heavily on states’ willingness to enumerate their own (often locally specific) lists of prohibited occupations, industries, and practices.

The Iowa bill turns that logic on its head. Instead of identifying occupations or worksites in Iowa that put young workers at risk, it exempts or waives protection when and where employers complain about a labor shortage.

The perils of child labor are well documented. The earliest regulations were motivated by a desire to free children from exploitative, dangerous occupations and to improve school attendance. Current research backs up those concerns: lightly regulated youth employment “comes with high psychological and social costs,” and young workers suffer workplace injuries and fatalities at much higher rates than older workers.

And such problems are getting worse. As a recent chilling exposé in the New York Times underscores, exploitation of child workers is flourishing at the intersection of failures in labor and immigration law. Last year, the Department of Labor concluded investigations involving 3,876 minors employed in violation of child-labor laws, a more than threefold jump since 2015.

Iowa’s bill would dump its young people into workplaces notorious for flouting safety regulations and for their coziness with state regulators — a problem dramatized by the pandemic but scarcely confined to it. The state’s rate of worker fatalities (at 4.9 per 1000) is 40 percent higher than the national rate. Of the 150 complaints of dangerous working conditions lodged in the first six months of the pandemic, all but five were closed by Iowa Occupational Health and Safety Administration with no inspection of the workplace in question.

The proposed bill protects employers from liability for injuries to young workers, and even those with recourse to workers’ compensation can’t count on much. In 2017, Iowa overhauled its workers’ compensation law — dramatically reducing benefits by toying with the definition of “permanent disability” and shifting much of the burden of workplace injuries onto workers and their families.

Making Iowa a Better Place to Work

The unspoken admission behind the child-labor bill is this: Iowa has a persistent labor shortage because it is a lousy place to work. The share of private sector workers covered by a collective bargaining contract has fallen from 21.5 percent in the early 1980s to just 4.8 percent today. The minimum wage ($7.25) hasn’t been raised since 2008, and its real (inflation-adjusted) value is now just over $5 an hour. One in seven Iowa workers is a victim of wage theft, with losses averaging over $3,765 a year for those affected.

Little wonder the state is shedding workers. Outside the state’s scattered metropolitan counties, decent employment options are fleeting. Over two-thirds (68 of 99) of Iowa counties lost population between 2010 and 2020. Iowa has one of the worst rates of “brain drain” (the percentage gap between the number of college graduates produced in a state and the number living there) in the nation.

One approach, notably absent in the anterooms of the state capitol, would be to make the Hawkeye State a better place to work — we face a shortage of good jobs, not a shortage of workers. So raise wages. Make it easier for workers to organize. Enforce basic labor standards. Hold employers accountable. Seems like a better option than backfilling labor markets with children.