An article from The Daily Caller has been storming the Internets this week. The Obama administration’s Department of Labor was reportedly planning to “prevent children from doing farm chores” by applying child labor laws to children working on family farms, prompting lots of outrage from lots of people. (I’m glad I waited my self-imposed 48 hours before commenting on new controversy, as it now seems that the administration “withdrew” the proposed rule after the outcry. The reversal happened almost as fast as last year’s Christmas tree tax.)
Was Obama trying to lose the rural vote? Heaven forbid children have the opportunity to learn responsibility and work ethic – they might learn they can get by without the federal government guiding their every step! Maybe the government doesn’t want kids helping out on the farm because that’s not taxable! What kind of country are we living in where parents increasingly allow their children to do irresponsible things while the government is actively clamping down on responsible options?
Well, there was the usual bit of conservative exaggeration. The regulation “would not apply to children working on farms owned by their parents” – though that did little to console conservatives from the threat of the increasingly nitpicky government nanny (what about a grandparent’s farm? an uncle’s? a neighbor’s?). Supposedly the department was just “updating” the list of tasks that children under 16 could not do, like handling pesticides, timber, and tobacco, but critics claimed that the broad 85-page proposal would have banned “almost all types of power-driven equipment,” including “battery powered screwdrivers,” along with eliminating participation in 4-H and FFA projects.
And what was the rationale for updating this regulation? What’s always the reason for letting the government wield unlimited power regarding anything to do with children? SAFETY! PROTECT THE CHILDREN! The Labor Department says “agricultural work accounts for 75 percent of the job-related fatalities for workers under 16.”
That sounds pretty bad, but how many kids under 16 have jobs at all these days? And how many of those jobs are likely to involve fatalities? Is it even surprising that 75% of those job-related fatalities would be in agricultural work? The relevant statistic here is not what percentage of these tragedies come from farms – the government can’t eliminate all risk – but how many tragedies there are to begin with, and whether things are getting better or worse.
Between 1995 and 2000, “farm-related” fatalities among youths under 16 came in at 469, or less than 100 per year, and – unless I’m reading the data wrong – only about 14% of those fatalities were work-related. So we’re talking maybe a dozen children a year? Furthermore, the Agriculture Department says that “farm accidents among youth fell nearly 40 percent between 2001 and 2009.” I haven’t found any exact up-to-date data, so please prove me wrong if you do, but the number of American children under 16 who die every year from working on farms may literally be in the single digits.
Certainly, that’s still tragic. But is it enough of a crisis that the federal government needs to get involved? Like I said in my post about the dangers of exotic animals, in a country of 300,000,000 people, where 125 people die every day in traffic accidents, I’m just not convinced that this is something the government needs to be worrying about. If the danger of farm equipment is great enough to get the federal government involved, we should also be banning kids from cars and bathtubs.
Children have been allowed to do these tasks throughout all of American history, with no real outcry that it’s especially dangerous, and after becoming almost twice as safe just in the last decade, probably the safest it’s ever been, now the government decides it needs to make the list more restrictive?
It’s almost like these departments sit around and dream up new regulations that no one wants or needs so they can continue to justify their enormous budgets and their very existence. Thankfully we have enough press and speech freedoms to at least win small battles like this one. I wonder what they’ll think up next…