On child labor

I have been in Honduras since Monday and am spending the next week in El Salvador. One thing I notice when traveling in the third world is child labor. There are always children, some as young as 7 years old, trying to sell you something, usually gum, other candy, or cigarettes. These kids are not in school and their futures are bleak. However, despite the obvious poverty of their situation one feels compelled to buy from them. Buying from them increases their income, making them better off. There is an implicit recognition that the alternative is not school, but hunger.

There are two reactions to child labor, one which comes from thinking about it, and the other which comes from seeing it. No one likes the idea of child labor to the extent that even considering it can get you ostracized from polite society. However, actually seeing child labor elicits a different reaction. The feeling is not to ban the child labor itself, but to help the kids in another way. The visualization of child labor forces one to understand the poverty of the choices they face.

The question is how to get people to understand opportunity cost as an abstract concept. Common arguments that children are working because it is the best option available to them fall on deaf ears. Even pointing out the outcomes that follow from restricting child labor is not enough. Paul Krugman notes that when Bangladesh banned child labor many kids turned to prostitution or starved. Even this is sometimes not enough. People have ideological predilections so strong they ignore problems of scarcity, ignoring the fact that the literal alternative to child labor is occasionally starvation.

When we think about child labor sometimes it is better to forget the statistics. Remember the kid trying to sell you gum. Would you take away his livelihood? How would he live? How would he eat?


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