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The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy

Sociologist Lisa Dodson investigates the growing grassroots movement against unethical standards within the workplace.

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The idea of collective responsibility for all children comes up in many different strands of human study. But it was also foundational to moral tensions that helped shape the nation when business interests and the well-being of people were at odds. Time and again market interests were argued—by those most profiting from them—as necessarily outweighing the good of the “little people,” even little children. The nineteenth-century debate about child labor reflects this tension precisely.   As mill owners, who profited greatly from hiring small, nimble hands and paying small wages, put it back in the nineteenth century: “We all think that mills should run not over eleven hours a day and avoid, if possible, taking children under twelve but deem legislation on the subject bad policy; let the employer and employee settle these things, this is a free country after all.”

Freedom, of course, was an unregulated market that could use workers as desired, including children.   But a growing awareness of child labor was disturbing, and not only to parents and labor rights advocates. Middle-class people took up the cause of working-class families even though their own children would never be subjected to such conditions. As Charles J. Bonaparte, presiding officer of the National Child Labor Committee, put it in a speech in 1905, “All right minded fathers and mothers want their own children to have every advantage in life, and all right minded men and women broaden out this feeling to take in all children.”

These child labor activists challenged all adults of the society— not just biological parents—to consider preventing harm to children a social responsibility.   Bolstered by the unflinching photographs by Lewis W.   Hine, the public face of ruthless business practices came home. One of Hine’s photos, captioned “Leo, 48 inches high, 8 years old, picks up bobbins at 15 cents a day,” shows a worn-out little boy looking you straight in the eye—it is hard to ignore him. Looking back now, it is startling to recall that it took decades to end child labor. Yet the power of the business lobby was as formidable then as it is today.   Business interests, with strong allies in Congress, argued that “market freedom” justified the use of children in the mills, in much the same way that plantation owners justified the need for slavery.   It is the essential position of the marketeer; these are economic negotiations, not moral debates. Yet I found that the taproot of child advocacy, though not now part of a social movement, nonetheless is widespread.   The most common grounds on which middle-income people claimed the moral right to break the rules or the law was in relation to children’s need for care and protection.

'As a Parent... I Just Couldn’t Live with Myself If I...'

Mary Jane, a retail sales manager in Denver, told me a story about a mother—Jenna—who called in sick when she had no sick days left. The fast-moving retail store that Mary Jane managed really needed “all hands on deck,” but Mary Jane was also surprised that Jenna would call in, because she was sure Jenna wasn’t really ill, and she was “really responsible.” She called Jenna back and wheedled her into telling her the full story.

On her way to work, Jenna had dropped her baby off at day care without diapers because “she just didn’t have the money to buy them.” The head of the day care center said she couldn’t take the baby because it was the third time Jenna had done this, and that meant that the staff had to use other children’s diapers— other families’ resources—and it wasn’t fair. Jenna had begged them to take the baby, explaining that when she got her paycheck, she would “buy a bag for everyone else.” But the child care staff felt they had been as flexible as they could—they had to “draw the line somewhere.” Mary Jane told me that she was angry and in a way ashamed: “I know what Pampers cost and I know what Jenna makes, and... as it is she ’s got to be cutting back [on everything else] just to buy them.” Mary Jane bought a bag of Pampers and drove over to the day care center, so that day’s problem was solved. And really, Mary Jane told me, you can hardly blame the child care staff, because they can’t really “steal from Paul to pay Peter”; that would be unfair.

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