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Were American Parents Really Selfish? Child Labour in the 19th Century


  • Bhaskar, Venkataraman
  • Gupta, Bishnupriya


Using the US Commissioner of Labor Survey of 1890, we examine household decisions and parental altruism vis-a-vis their children. Contrary to Parsons and Goldin (1989), we find that parental location choices were dictated by constraints rather than the desire to exploit child labour opportunities. We also find signfiicant income effects on child labour supply, indicating that rising affluence played an important part in the secular decline of child labour. We also find that the effects of childrens' income on their own consumption are weak, once child labour is controlled for.

Suggested Citation

  • Bhaskar, Venkataraman & Gupta, Bishnupriya, 2006. "Were American Parents Really Selfish? Child Labour in the 19th Century," CEPR Discussion Papers 5675, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  • Handle: RePEc:cpr:ceprdp:5675

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Basu, Kaushik & Van, Pham Hoang, 1998. "The Economics of Child Labor," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 88(3), pages 412-427, June.
    2. Moehling, Carolyn M., 2005. ": Youth Employment and Household Decision Making in the Early Twentieth Century," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 65(02), pages 414-438, June.
    3. Bliss, Christopher & Stern, Nicholas, 1978. "Productivity, wages and nutrition : Part I: the theory," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 5(4), pages 331-362, December.
    4. Ranjan Ray, 2000. "Analysis of child labour in Peru and Pakistan: A comparative study," Journal of Population Economics, Springer;European Society for Population Economics, vol. 13(1), pages 3-19.
    5. Edmonds, Eric V., 2006. "Child labor and schooling responses to anticipated income in South Africa," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 81(2), pages 386-414, December.
    6. Jean-Marie Baland & James A. Robinson, 2000. "Is Child Labor Inefficient?," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 108(4), pages 663-679, August.
    7. Moehling, Carolyn M., 1999. "State Child Labor Laws and the Decline of Child Labor," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 36(1), pages 72-106, January.
    8. Mincer, Jacob, 1978. "Family Migration Decisions," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 86(5), pages 749-773, October.
    9. Beegle, Kathleen & Dehejia, Rajeev H. & Gatti, Roberta, 2006. "Child labor and agricultural shocks," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 81(1), pages 80-96, October.
    10. Parsons, Donald O & Goldin, Claudia, 1989. "Parental Altruism and Self-Interest: Child Labor among Late Nineteenth-Century American Families," Economic Inquiry, Western Economic Association International, vol. 27(4), pages 637-659, October.
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    More about this item


    child labour; parental altruism;

    JEL classification:

    • D13 - Microeconomics - - Household Behavior - - - Household Production and Intrahouse Allocation
    • J13 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demographic Economics - - - Fertility; Family Planning; Child Care; Children; Youth
    • N31 - Economic History - - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Welfare, Income, Wealth, Religion, and Philanthropy - - - U.S.; Canada: Pre-1913

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