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The Economics of Child Labor: Comment


  • Kenneth A. Swinnerton

    (U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of International Labor Affairs)

  • Carol Ann Rogers

    (Georgetown University)


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, the economy is developed enough to eliminate child labor. In this comment it becomes clear that if child labor exists in this economy, the causes are purely distributional.

Suggested Citation

  • Kenneth A. Swinnerton & Carol Ann Rogers, 1999. "The Economics of Child Labor: Comment," Labor and Demography 9903002, EconWPA.
  • Handle: RePEc:wpa:wuwpla:9903002
    Note: Type of Document - WordPerfect; prepared on IBM PC ; to print on HP; pages: 10 ; figures: included

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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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    More about this item


    child labor; adult labor;

    JEL classification:

    • J4 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Particular Labor Markets
    • J1 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demographic Economics
    • I3 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Welfare, Well-Being, and Poverty


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