Child labor and large birth rates are two parallel phenomena, and the relations of the two must be understood if we are to appreciate the benefits of the modern reduction of birth rates.
A clergyman, the Rev. Father J. McLeary, of Minneapolis, has been quoted as asserting that "the assumption that one or two children will be reared to be better men and women, than ten to a dozen, in a Christian family, is wholly false, and cannot be supported by the test of experience." Nevertheless, if the father is a common laborer, able to earn but a dollar and a half a day, and we count out Sundays and holidays, he has but nine cents a day for each of the fourteen, for food, clothing and shelter. Such lust leads to starvation, pauperism or child labor. Only recently the New York Charity Organization Society appealed for $250 to support the wife and six children of a machine operator, who never earned more than six dollars a week, and send the eldest children to school. That is, no poor man unassisted has ever been able to support many offspring and child labor has been a necessity for human survival.
On the farms of a century ago child labor was absolutely necessary, and if the farmer had no children of his own, he adopted some for the work he could squeeze out of their little bodies. Many of the rich men of to-day started life as farmer's boys. In lower cultures we see the same rule of the necessity of child labor for family survival. Indeed, the investigations of Heron led him to the belief that modern children appear because their labor is necessary to help support the family.
Until a century ago life was mostly rural, and the labor of children was perfectly wholesome, but with the dawn of the industrial era populations became concentrated, and there was nothing for the children to do but work in some factory - hence, began that great but necessary evil which has been denounced because so destructive of life. The movement for better sanitation in factories and the improvement in the conditions of the child laborers has now borne such good fruit that in some sections the factory children are infinitely better off than those in the cities where the law forbids them working to help support the family, but sends them starving to school.
Now, the point of the matter is found in the fact that a century ago, with its large birth rate, nearly all children had to work, but with the progressive reduction of the birth rate the parents have been able to support an increasing percentage. The last census showed that only 1,700,000 children between ten and fifteen were employed at manual labor, and, moreover, 1,000,000 of these were at wholesome agricultural work; over 250,000 employed as servants, messengers, etc., leaving only 500,000 in factories and mines. Moreover, the average American workman is able to keep more than three children at home, while the European workman with his larger birth rate and less earning power supports less than three - the rest being thrust out to make their own living. Child labor is not proof of overpopulation, for the farmer's boys of colonial times had plenty to eat and wear, but they had to work for it just as the factory child does.
The conditions of child labor in the first cotton factories of England have been described by many pens. A few extracts are given in John Spargo's "Socialism." Children were in great demand because they were cheap and could do the work formerly turned out by a dozen men. They were employed as early as six years of age, men even took up the business of collecting and selling them as slaves, though nominally as apprentices. Parish authorities thus got rid of their imbeciles, one being smuggled in with each twenty sane paupers, but no one has ever dared to say what became of the poor idiots. The children worked until exhausted - often sixteen hours a day - lived in stench and heat, were forced to unnatural activity by blows, and actual instruments of torture, many being chained to prevent escape. They slept in relays in filthy beds and fed on food unfit for pigs. The deaths were so numerous that burials were made at night in secret to prevent a riot, and many a poor tot committed suicide for relief. The stunted survivors were merely food for the criminal class. Gibbon says:* "The spectacle of England buying the freedom of black slaves by riches drawn from the labor of her white ones [and mere babies at that] affords an interesting study for the cynical philosopher".
Any one who can read this and compare it with present conditions, and then say that the world is not growing better by reason of lessened birth rates, must be hard to convince. Nevertheless, suffering and starvation are still with us, only in different forms, as elsewhere stated, for no poor man can support many children in idleness.