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Working Papers and the Child Labor Law

Oct 17-19, 1911 — Twelfth New York State Conference of Charities and Correction, Watertown, NY


The previous paper has dealt with defects in the Labor Law — omissions which leave certain children unprotected and open to commercial exploitation. We are now to take up the difficulties of administration of one of the most important features of the whole Child Labor Law, that is the granting of working papers. The minimum standard set up by the State, that no child under 14 years should work for pay, sounds simple, but in practice is difficult to enforce. There are, to be sure, real difficulties in getting proof of age, but there are, besides, the persistent efforts of parents to hoodwink the officials and by hook or crook to secure the working papers for an under-age child. There are parents who are moved by poverty or unnatural greed to count upon the wages of their children. They often have not grasped what compulsory education stands for in America, and resent the interference of the Child Labor Law. We have to reckon with this sinister desire to circumvent the law, and therefore make our test so rigid that we shall really keep children out of work until they have reached their fourteenth year, and prevent them from pushing and scrambling into the ranks of the wage-earners.

In New York City, naturally, the yearly influx of children is greatest, and approximately 42,000 working papers will be granted this year. Here the difficulties of enforcement are seen at their worst. The size of our problem is in itself a reason for making the law fixed and arbitrary and giving the issuing officer no discretion to relax its provisions. After the schools close in July, boys and girls apply in such numbers for their working papers that the line often stretches around the block from the Manhattan Board of Health office. Hundreds come every day. There is manifestly only one trustworthy proof of age, namely the birth certificate, and if it were possible the law would require it in every case. If we were as careful as the Italian government, for instance, in registering births, we should be able to attest the exact age of every American born child as it is now possible to do for the Italian born children. Because we are obliged to substitute other documentary evidence of age in place of the birth certificate, which often can not be produced, section 71 of the Labor Law has grown to such cumbersome dimensions. This section is apparently a mass of red tape. But, in fact, it embodies in the simplest form yet devised the practical experience of many years. It enumerates all kinds of proof of age which have been found most reliable when the birth certificate can not be produced. It is not for the foreign born alone, by any manner of means, that it is necessary to resort to. these different, forms of evidence, but for hundreds of American born children whose births have never been registered. In New York city about 13 per cent, of the children now attaining 14 years are not registered.

In those easy-going days before 1903 — before we made the discovery that thousands of children as young as 12 years had gone to work — it was an easy matter to get an employment certificate. The parents’ affidavit without further corroboration was accepted as proof of age. Investigation begun at that time clearly showed that the influx of child laborers must ‘be stopped at its source. Some enforceable standard to prove age unquestionably was urgently needed to bar out the under-aged children. As a result, section 71 of the Labor Law was redrawn and the documentary proof of age was enumerated in the law in the order in which it would be accepted. But the enforcement of the law was not automatic.  A cry of protest went up from a quarter where it was least to be expected. Not from parents, not from employers, manufacturers or merchants whose personal interest might be at stake, not any of these, but the teachers raised a protest against the movement to keep the children in school and out of work till they were 14 years old and had acquired the rudimentary education expected of a child of 12. It was therefore necessary to begin a campaign of education, to get the superintendent of schools to point out the requirements for getting an employment certificate, namely, that compulsory education in New York State lasts till the sixteenth birthday, and that only a special class of children are permitted to leave school at 14 if they can meet certain educational requirements and the age test. The school principal himself must sign the school record, testifying that the child has attended school 130 days in the year before going to work, and that he is able to read and write simple sentences in the English language and has received instruction in reading, spelling, writing, English grammar and geography and is familiar with the fundamental operations of arithmetic up to and including fractions. According to a ruling in New York City, the child must have completed the 5-A grade.

It was hard for the teachers to appreciate the reason why the age given in school could not be accepted as correct by the Health Officer without further corroboration. But, as a matter of fact, out of 100 school children often as many as 30 were found to be overstating their age. Naturally, the children called upon their teachers to help them get proof of age. The teachers found this added duty so heavy that they declaimed against it as unreason able, in fact they bade fair to upset the new law before it had been fairly tried out. In this emergency the New York Child Labor Committee received permission from the New York Board of Health to place a special agent at the Manhattan office to help the children secure their evidence of age and to enlist the cooperation of the teachers. Four years of this work have produced most encouraging results. In the last calendar year 79 per cent, of the children receiving their working papers were able to pro duce birth certificates as proof of age. Figures recently compiled show that the percentage has risen to 86. This result proves that a rigid enforcement of the law is not impracticable. Long and painstaking effort has been necessary on the part of our Board of Health and our special agent, Miss Miner. She has devised methods of securing birth certificates from almost all the European countries, including Turkey, Greece and Algeria, be sides obtaining them from the nearer countries, Germany, Italy and England with almost clocklike regularity. The need of such insistent demand for the birth paper is almost daily proved. The substitutes offered by the parents, their unsupported affidavits, are constantly found to raise the age of the child three to six months beyond the actual birth certificate when secured. But when after the most diligent search this precious paper can not be produced, there are other records that can ‘be called upon in the following order: graduation certificates from schools having a course of not less than eight years, passport or baptismal certificates, and, passed upon by the regular meeting of the Board of Health. * For last, other documentary evidence which in each case must be immigrants, passports give reliable data and the ship’s manifest papers at Ellis Island are also available whenever the immigrant can recall the name of the ship which brought him and his family to America. Other documentary evidence can be obtained by the use of a little ingenuity. Our so-called Board papers include hospital and relief records, vaccination, confirmation, circumcision papers, family Bible entries, insurance papers, etc., but such evidence is only acceptable when one can be sure that there has been no temptation to overstate the age in order to secure a working paper.

To give the law even more elasticity, not to exclude any children unjustly from work, a new device is being tried out in first-class cities. The law specifies that a child may come up for physical examination by two doctors of the Board of Health if 90 days’ search has failed to reveal any of the preceding forms of evidence. If the doctors agree that the child has attained the physical development of a child of 14, a working paper will then be issued.
But not all of the difficulties are overcome when the child has satisfactorily proved his age, for the Board of Health officer must also test his educational qualifications. The officer must file a statement that the child can read and write simple sentences in the English language. The test is easy and it is amazing that any boy or girl of 14 years should be unable to meet it. In 1909, 414 pupils were refused for this reason. On account of this checking up of their work the schools are now doing better, and in the last half year only 152 pupils were refused for insufficient education. The public schools have been forced to arrange preliminary examinations in the schools before the children are allowed to apply to the Board of Health.

To prove physical fitness, which the officer must also certify to, the need of some objective test is apparent. It is not sufficient to have an over-busy doctor give a glance at the child. The New York office sets up a standard that no child weighing less than 80 pounds, measuring less than 60 inches, can go to work unless a second medical inspector examines the child and both agree that the child is physically sound and able to work. This minimum requirement rules out the obviously underfed, anaemic children who can not stand the pressure of industrial life. Five hundred and nine children were rejected as unfit last year, while only two hundred and nine had been rejected the year before. These figures prove that there has been some improvement, but manifestly there is still much to be done. The doctors also examine throat, eyes and teeth, and direct defective children to go to the dispensaries for treatment. In this work Rochester sets the whole State an example which all would do well to follow, for they really with hold the working papers until the child is treated.

In spite of all the care taken in the administration of the law to rule out the under-aged and unfit children, we have still to face the fact that 42,000 children are entering industrial life in New York City alone. This means that the enormous number of 80,000 children between the ages of 14 and 16 are at work at the present moment. The army of child workers is increased by approximately 5,000 each year, an increase which can hardly be attributed to the general increase in population. It is largely due to the more rigid enforcement of the child labor law, which deters employers from taking children without papers. The law works more easily. There are fewer refusals because of the better cooperation of the teachers and because the parents are beginning to appreciate that no pleading or intercession will aid them, and that the Board of Health is enforcing the law impartially and strictly.

It would be appropriate on this occasion to consider this problem in relation to the whole State of New York. But there is such a lack of information on the whole subject that it is almost impossible to do more than indicate the importance of the question and to try and interest each community in its own particular problem. There are no figures available to show exactly how many employment certificates have been issued in the State of New York. The Labor Commissioner publishes the totals for first and second-class cities. But why is there only this fragmentary in formation available? Is it not important that we should know the total number of children who have begun to work this year? Each community can, of course, reach the matter directly by looking into the administration of the law at home. By answering such questions as the following: How is the work being done (Is the number of working papers issued increasing each year? Are under-age children going to work? How are the local schools cooperating with the board of health officer? Are the birth records used? Is the reading and writing test applied? What minimum health standards have been set up?

As far as we have been able to discover, there is serious laxness in the administration of the law in many cities and towns and an extraordinary indifference on the part of the community to the whole matter. We find that whenever attention is focused upon the health officers and our agents point out that parents’ affidavits can not be accepted unless the health officer is satisfied that every effort has been made to secure better evidence as required by law, the number of employment certificates granted immediately falls off. Information from Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Elmira all shows that there is need of uniform blanks and uniform procedure, since no two places are administering the laws in the same way.

There is one particular reason for encouragement at the present moment, however, because this year sees the end of vacation certificates. Second-class cities have allowed children between the ages of 12 and 14 to go to work in vacation time. The difficulties of enforcement were greatly increased by the confusion of having two kinds of certificates, and many children once granted vacation working papers never returned to school. Now that this evil has been remedied, it seems a fortunate time to urge upon every local community the need of inquiring into the procedure in its local office. Particularly the physical examination need not be superficial. Most health officers do not realize the possibility for benefiting the children which the law allows them. They can prevent many under-developed, anaemic or incapacitated children from going to work which will surely be injurious.

There is one point that needs particular emphasis. Under our present school law a child between 14 and 16 years must either at tend school or must be at work with an employment certificate. It is important that this section of the law should be rigidly en forced in order to prevent truancy. No child under 16 should be allowed to stay out of school to engage in housework, either at home or for others, unless he has met all the requirements necessary for an employment certificate and has had his papers issued to him.

The State education and labor departments have interpreted the law in this way. No other procedure will hold the children in school and keep them from drifting into illegal employment without an employment certificate on the plea that they are merely working at home.
Another critical point in the enforcement of this law is the immediate report to the school authorities of children refused employment certificates. In fact no names should be removed from the school register until the principal has received information that the working papers have actually been issued. The children who have been refused working papers should be regarded as truants and immediately looked up in order that they may not run the streets and, possibly, obtain illegal employment.

As far as the law itself is concerned, no claim is made that it is perfect, but it is only by enforcement that we can detect its weak points and set out to remedy them.

There are, of course, cases of hardship caused by the thorough enforcement of the law. In New York City the Child Labor Committee gives scholarships in case of need to children who are unable to obtain their working papers because they have not at tended school sufficiently or do not come up to the educational requirements, these scholarships amounting to two or three dollars a week, and are paid every week on condition that school attendance is regular. They are intended to remove some of the hardships caused by the law if real poverty is proved after careful investigation.

In all this discussion we have taken it for granted that we all support the view that child labor under 14 is a bad thing. We realize that the process of excluding the under-age children is ex pensive and cumbersome. But whenever our efforts are relaxed the parents find the temptation irresistible to put their children to work too early. When you consider the number of child workers, if you could see the army of them that appears at the New York City Board of Health and realize how many are physically unfit, how many pathetically unable to carry the burden about to be placed on their shoulders, you would no doubt join the ranks of those wishing to raise the age limit. We need better schools, we need to give the children a chance to develop. Do not help to push them into the maelstrom, but lend a hand in giving the last privilege and immunity to childhood.



Source: Proceedings of the Twelfth New York State Conference of Charities and Correction, (Albany: J.B. Lyon Company), 1911, pp. 107-113.