The Struggle to Eradicate Child Labor (1930-1955)

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” Yo cuando era niño – mi padre querido”, Jose Suarez, Song (1939) 

In 1939 José Suarez recorded this song that he had written titled “Yo cuando era niño – mi padre querido” which translates in English to “When I was a child- my beloved father.” The song recalled memories that Suarez had from childhood where he would pick cotton alongside his father and others starting from a young age. Suarez was raised in Texas and born to immigrant parents from Mexico who had to work long hours in physically demanding jobs that paid low wages [1]. Although the exact details under which Suarez and other children working in the cotton fields in the early 1900s are not known the song evokes emotions of despair and sacrifice as images of poverty stricken adults and children move across the screen. Immigration from Mexico to the United States rapidly increased in the first three decades of the 20th century with the number of Mexican immigrants counted by the U.S. census tripling from 200,000 to 600,000 from the years 1900-1930 [2]. While life was difficult for many farmers during the early years of the 20th century Mexican Immigrants often had to face issues such as discrimination, harassment, and intimidation that their white counterparts could largely avoid. When child welfare organizations pleaded their argument that children should be schools instead of in the fields it is interesting to note that the children they often references were white child laborers working in industrial setting as opposed to the children such as the one Jose Suarez used to be, a poor agricultural child laborer born to immigrant parents.

“Child Labor Standards for the Nation’s Children”, United States Department of Labor  Government Flyer (ca. 1941-1945) 

children on a road next to factory and farm drawing

This government flyer was created by the United States Department of Labor at some point during the years 1941-1945 in Washington, D.C. The purpose of its creation was to spread the message that every child under the age of sixteen belongs in school during the day and should not be out in the fields or factories laboring. An important aspect of flyer reminds people that children working for their parents in every occupation besides mining and manufacturing are exempt from certain provisions of the Fair Labor and Standard Act (FLSA) passed a few years earlier in 1938. The FLSA was already in effect at the time of this flyers creation although enforcement of the act was inconsistent and sometimes ignored especially in rural areas. Although many children were enrolled in school full time many others were pulled out of their classroom by their parents to earn wages. It is interesting to note that the two people who appear on the flyer are both drawn to resemble Caucasian children. This was likely an intentional decision as although here were children from many races and ethnicities laboring in the fields and factories during this time period, people were most likely to associate white children with innocence and purity.

 Gertrude Folks Zimand. Gertrude Folks Zimand to National Child Labor Committee supporters “To eliminate harmful employment and promote educational opportunities for children and youth”, Letter (1952) 

Letter, black and white typewriter

In 1952 general secretary of the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), Gertrude Folks Zimand, wrote this letter to supporters of the NCLC from the committee’s headquarters in New York City. The aim of the letter was to urge people to write to their senators and tell them to support a proposed amendment to pre-existing legislation, introduced by senator Hubert Humphrey, that would allocate $181,000 to the education of migrant children. Zimand highlights the discrepancy between the U.S. federal government spending $6.5 million to protect migratory birds but refusing to spend a fraction of that money on educating migrant children. This source reveals the hypocrisy present within the government relating to the fact that they are willing to claim that their nation is the land of the free with abundant opportunities for everyone yet they fail to educate one of the most vulnerable groups of children in their nation, migrant children,  setting them up to live a life of poverty. This source highlights the fact that even as late as the 1950s migrant children were being exploited and receiving little to no education or protection from laboring in the fields. Although people such as Zimand worked tirelessly to get protection for these children it was impossible without the support of congress for a few child welfare organizations to convince legislators to enact meaningful child labor laws that would be enforced on a regular basis.

Maurice J. Tobin. “Message to Farm Workers! Why Your Children Should Go to School”, Government Flyer (1952)

government flyer send children to school

United States Secretary of State, Maurice Tobin, published this government flyer from Washington D.C. in 1952 to persuade farm workers to send their children to school and inform them about the importance of an education. Often poor and uneducated, farmers would keep their children in the fields instead of in school to increase their earnings. The key issue mentioned is how laws passed during the time period prohibited children under 16 to work in the fields during school hours and how failure to comply with the law could result in consequential action against the employer. Many parents would pull their children out of school during the harvest season or when they were desperate to earn additional wages to help sustain their family. Being that wages of farm workers were low it was often a necessity for children to work as the extra income earned by children helped the family survive. The aim of this flyer is to get farm workers children to attend school and reduce the number of young people laboring in the fields and receiving little to no education. Education was often the key to a brighter future for many young Americans but especially for those who grew up in poverty and who were among the most disadvantaged groups of people in the nation.


  1. Songs of Unionization, Labor Strikes, and Child Labor. Online Text.
  2. “Mexican Americans – A Growing Community – Immigration.” Library of Congress. 2015.