Last November, the United States Department of Labor investigated Packers Sanitation Services (PSS) and found that the company, which provides industrial cleaning services for the meat packing industry, employed at least 102 underage migrant children in eight states across the country.
The children, some as young as 13, often worked overnight shifts scrubbing blood and beef fat from slaughterhouse floors. They routinely used industrial strength foams, acids, and scalding water dispensed from high pressure hoses to clean work surfaces, electric knives, fat skinners, and 190-pound saws used to cut up pork and beef carcasses and were routinely covered in blood. They regularly suffered chemical burns, and it was those burns — plus the fact the kids were falling asleep in class due to sleep deprivation — that ultimately caught the attention of public-school nurses who alerted authorities. As a result, PSS was fined a paltry $1.5 million.
This horrendous situation — a throwback to the days of widespread exploitation of children by big businesses prior to the introduction of child labor laws in the early 20th century — was the product of a nationwide labor shortage magnified by the particularly unpleasant jobs these kids held, horrific parents and guardians, high wages (as much as $22 an hour), a state and federal regulatory system which cannot possibly oversee every corporation or investigate every allegation of misconduct with regard to child labor, and the special vulnerability attached to undocumented immigrants and their families.
But it should not be seen as an aberration. Child labor violations at slaughterhouses, construction sites and factories have almost quadrupled since 2015, and because violations are vastly underreported they are likely to be far worse than anyone realizes. And that fact is emblematic of a larger truth, which is that we in America do not care about our children. Oh, we each worry about our own, of course. But children as a group? As vulnerable human beings who deserve our protection and care who will inherit our fragile planet and imperfect society? Not so much.
Consider that in Arkansas, one of many states in which PSS operates, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and the Republican-controlled Legislature recently lowered child labor protections. Companies no longer must verify the age of their workers or obtain parental or guardian approval prior to hiring a child. In Ohio, Republicans passed a bill that allows 14 and 15 year olds to work until 9 p.m. year round, even when schools are in session. And in Iowa, the center of the universe for meatpackers, children can work in slaughterhouses in select jobs once they reach 14. Companies are trusted to police themselves with regard to federal child labor law violations.
Or consider gun violence. Firearms remain the No. 1 cause of death among children in the United States, a fact which is not replicated in any other developed nation on earth. In 2020, 4,357 American kids were killed by guns. Germany came in second place with 14, while Australia had 10, the United Kingdom had 8, and the Netherlands had 2. Translated into per capita numbers, the firearms mortality rate per 100,000 children aged 1-19 in 2020 in the U.S. was 5.8. Canada was second at 0.8.
Given the carnage, particularly the recent spike in mass school shootings, one might think lawmakers would be doing all they could to protect children. But no. In Missouri the GOP-controlled Legislature responded to the rivers of juvenile blood by passing laws that allow children to carry firearms openly without parental supervision and regardless of their age.
How about child marriage, a persistent sexist catastrophe in the U.S. that predominantly impacts teenage girls and places us in company with impoverished countries in the developing world? Between 2000 and 2018 more than 300,000 minors were legally married in the United States, some younger than 16. The recent trend nationally is to view these marriages as a form of child abuse, and it is worth noting that seven states have banned underage marriages without exception. But in the other 43 it remains legal in various forms, and in West Virginia Republicans recently voted against a bill that would have outlawed marriage for anyone under 18. In Tennessee the GOP tried to eliminate ANY age limit but was roundly criticized and the effort failed. Wyoming has no minimum age at all.
Well, then, what about corporal punishment in schools? Many countries have banned the practice, but not the United States. And in Oklahoma, Republicans recently defeated a proposal (sponsored, ironically, by a Republican) that would have prohibited teachers from using corporal punishment on the disabled. Which means the Legislature does not trust teachers to choose books for children to read, but they do trust them to decide when to beat the physically impaired.
And so on. I have not even mentioned the destruction of our public schools, the nationwide mental health crisis among our teens, the conclusive evidence that social media damages self-esteem and social skills, the impact of COVID, the damage caused by online education, the absolute and empirical decline in student reading and writing skills, the dangers of climate change, the skyrocketing cost of higher education nationally, or the decline in civility, faith in institutions, and democratic elections that we older people have imparted to our children.
This likely seems an inordinately pessimistic view of the place young people hold in our society, and it is certainly true that in some ways our children have more opportunities and a higher quality of life than ever before, particularly if they are raised by affluent parents and guardians. But the data is unimpeachable. We are backsliding as a society in our treatment of young people, and in an era when they have access to more information than at any point in history they can look to other countries and see just how badly we are failing them by comparison.
We should tremble at the thought of their reaction when they realize how profoundly we have failed them.
Lance Janda holds a PhD in History from the University of Oklahoma and has more than 30 years of experience in higher education. He is the author of “Stronger Than Custom: West Point and the Admission of Women”, among other works.