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Illegal Child Labor in the United States: Prevalence and Characteristics


  • Douglas Kruse
  • Douglas Mahony


This study provides the first comprehensive estimates of children and youth working under conditions that violate federal and state child labor laws. Using the CPS, NLS, and other sources, it is estimated that 148,000 minors are employed illegally in an average week working too many hours or in hazardous occupations and 290,000 are employed illegally at some point during a year. The total number of hours worked illegally is about 113 million per year, for which these minors are paid over $560 million. Whites, males, and 15-year-olds are the most likely to be working in violation of child labor laws. Youths working illegally in hazardous jobs earn on average $1.38 per hour less than legal young adults in the same occupations, which combined with the savings from employing youths for excessive hours adds up to a total employer cost savings of roughly $155 million per year. In addition to raising important policy concerns about the health and well-being of these youths, the findings make a case for the development of high-quality employment data on children and youths, to improve estimates of illegal employment and study its effects.

Suggested Citation

  • Douglas Kruse & Douglas Mahony, 1998. "Illegal Child Labor in the United States: Prevalence and Characteristics," NBER Working Papers 6479, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:6479
    Note: LS

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Richard B. Freeman & James L. Medoff, 1982. "Why Does the Rate of Youth Labor Force Activity Differ across Surveys?," NBER Chapters,in: The Youth Labor Market Problem: Its Nature, Causes, and Consequences, pages 75-114 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. repec:aph:ajpbhl:1994:84:4:646-649_3 is not listed on IDEAS
    3. Kathleen Stanley, 1992. "Immigrant and Refugee Workers in the Midwestern Meatpacking Industry: Industrial Restructuring and the Transformation of Rural Labor Markets," Review of Policy Research, Policy Studies Organization, vol. 11(2), pages 106-117, June.
    4. Holleran Philip M., 1993. "Child Labor and Exploitation in Turn-of-the-Century Cotton Mills," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 30(4), pages 485-500, October.
    5. 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.
    6. Brown, Martin & Christiansen, Jens & Philips, Peter, 1992. "The Decline of Child Labor in the U.S. Fruit and Vegetable Canning Industry: Law or Economics?," Business History Review, Cambridge University Press, vol. 66(04), pages 723-770, December.
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    Cited by:

    1. Drusilla K. Brown & Alan V. Deardorff & Robert M. Stern, 2009. "The Effects of Multinational Production on Wages and Working Conditions in Developing Countries," World Scientific Book Chapters,in: Globalization And International Trade Policies, chapter 17, pages 623-687 World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd..
    2. 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.
    3. Patrick M. Emerson & André Portela Souza, 2011. "Is Child Labor Harmful? The Impact of Working Earlier in Life on Adult Earnings," Economic Development and Cultural Change, University of Chicago Press, vol. 59(2), pages 345-385.
    4. Drusilla K. Brown & Alan V. Deardorff & Robert M. Stern, 2009. "U.S. Trade and Other Policy Options and Programs to Deter Foreign Exploitation of Child Labor," World Scientific Book Chapters,in: Globalization And International Trade Policies, chapter 18, pages 689-743 World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd..
    5. Cavalcanti, Tiago V. de V., 2003. "Child Labor and School Policies," Revista Brasileira de Economia - RBE, FGV/EPGE - Escola Brasileira de Economia e Finanças, Getulio Vargas Foundation (Brazil), vol. 57(4), October.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • J13 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demographic Economics - - - Fertility; Family Planning; Child Care; Children; Youth
    • J18 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demographic Economics - - - Public Policy


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