Unratified Amendments: Regulating Child Labor

This is the fourth installment of a series about unratified constitutional amendments. Today we’re looking at an amendment proposed during the Progressive Era to regulate child labor.

During the Progressive Era, muckraking journalists and photographers drew public attention to a myriad of America’s social problems, one of them being the exploitation of children. Perhaps most famous was Lewis Hine, who was a photographer for the National Child Labor Committee. Hine’s photographs documented the working conditions of children in factories, fields, and mines.

In 1916, in an attempt to regulate child labor, Congress passed the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act. The act banned the sale of products from any factory, shop, or cannery that employed children under the age of 14, from any mine that employed children under the age of 16, and from any facility that had children under the age of 16 working at night or for more than 8 hours during the day. Congress cited its authority to pass the law stemmed from the Federal Government’s ability to regulate interstate commerce.

An act to prevent interstate commerce in the products of child labor (Keating-Owen Child Labor Act), 9/1/1916. (National Archives Identifier 5730381)

In 1918, however, the United States Supreme Court ruled the act was unconstitutional because it overstepped the purpose of the government’s powers to regulate interstate commerce. Congress passed another child labor bill in 1918, this time citing the Federal Government’s power to levy taxes. In 1922 the Supreme Court found it unconstitutional as well.

Congress next tried to regulate child labor through a constitutional amendment. It read:

Section 1. The Congress shall have power to limit, regulate, and prohibit the labor of persons under eighteen years of age.

Section 2. The power of the several States is unimpaired by this article except that the operation of State laws shall be suspended to the extent necessary to give effect to legislation enacted by the Congress.

The House of Representatives passed the joint resolution on April 26, 1924, by a vote of 297–69; and Senate the passed it on June 2, 1924, by a vote of 61–23. The proposed constitutional amendment was then submitted to the state legislatures for ratification.

Joint Resolution proposing a constitutional amendment to regulate child labor, 6/2/1924. (National Archives Identifier 7741400)

After a few state ratifications in 1924 and 1925, the amendment stalled, mostly because of a successful ad campaign to discredit it. By 1937, when the most recent state passed the amendment, only 28 states had ratified it. This fell short of the required three-fourths threshold. The amendment is still outstanding, however, and ratification by 10 more states (38 states in total) is required to add the amendment to the Constitution. 

Congress obtained Federal protection for children in 1938, when it passed the Fair Labor Standards Act. The act prohibits “oppressive child labor” in the United States, which is defined, with exceptions, as the employment of youth under the age of 16 in any occupation or the employment of youth under 18 years old in hazardous occupations. The act was also challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court, but this time the act was upheld.

Next time we’ll be looking at the Equal Rights Amendment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.