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The Economics of Child Labor: Comment


  • Carol Ann Rogers
  • Kenneth A. Swinnerton


In a recent paper, Kaushik Basu and Pham Hoang Van (BV, 1998) develop an important and very interesting model in which a fairly productive economy exhibits multiple equilibria, with children working in at least one. They identify two assumptions as essential to this result. The first - - which they call the "luxury axiom" - - is that a family sends its children to the labor market only if its income from sources other than child labor is very low. The second is embodied in their "substitution axiom" which states that from the point of view of firms, child labor is substitutable for adult labor. In this comment, we show that in addition to these two assumptions about the micro-level behavior of households and firms, there is also an essential macro-level assumption that may be termed the "distribution axiom:" income or wealth from non-labor sources must be sufficiently concentrated in the hands of a few agents. We establish that if non-labor income is distributed with sufficient equality, a market equilibrium with child labor cannot exist in the BV model. Beyond their contribution as an extension of BV's theory, our results formalize a proposition implicit in recent policy discussions of child labor. Christiaan Grootaert and Ravi Kanbur (1995) note that as household-level poverty is well-known to be the major cause of child labor, "[g]eneral economic development, equitably distributed, is the best and most sustainable way of reducing child labor." (p. 198, emphasis added) Policy documents from the International Labor Organization (ILO) have long conveyed this view, and now the World Bank appears to as well (Peter Fallon and Zafiris Tzannatos, 1998). There is a growing recognition that while economic development and development policies are necessary to eliminating child labor, they are not always sufficient on their own. Distributional considerations matter. Indeed, in the case in which BV's model yields multiple equilibria, th
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Suggested Citation

  • Carol Ann Rogers & Kenneth A. Swinnerton, 1999. "The Economics of Child Labor: Comment," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 89(5), pages 1382-1385, December.
  • Handle: RePEc:aea:aecrev:v:89:y:1999:i:5:p:1382-1385
    Note: DOI: 10.1257/aer.89.5.1382

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Kaushik Basu, 1999. "Child Labor: Cause, Consequence, and Cure, with Remarks on International Labor Standards," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 37(3), pages 1083-1119, September.
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    JEL classification:

    • J13 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demographic Economics - - - Fertility; Family Planning; Child Care; Children; Youth
    • J22 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demand and Supply of Labor - - - Time Allocation and Labor Supply
    • K31 - Law and Economics - - Other Substantive Areas of Law - - - Labor Law


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