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Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution.

In this book Clark Nardinelli uses neoclassical economics to examine the role of child labor in Great Britain during the Industrial Revolution. The result is an interesting, if not completely convincing, reinterpretation of the economics of child labor. Nardinelli's approach differs significantly from the conventional view of the role of child labor during British industrialization, which he surveys in chapter 2. According to this view, a shortage of adult males willing to work in factories caused children to become a necessary part of the factory work force. Children were treated harshly in the factories, and their employment kept the wages of adult males too low to support their families, which in turn forced adults to send their children to work in factories. The conventional view concludes that the employment of young children declined after 1835 only because Parliament adopted a series of child labor laws.

Nardinelli maintains that each part of the conventional wisdom is incorrect. In chapter 3 he develops a model of the family economy based on Gary Becker's theory of household production and uses the model to explain the rise and decline of child labor in textile factories. According to Nardinelli, the development of textile factories increased the productivity, and thus the wage rates, of children. The employment of children in factories therefore was "a simple response to the changes engendered by the new technology" of the Industrial Revolution (p. 64). In chapter 4 Nardinelli attempts to determine whether children employed in textile factories were exploited. He examines several indirect measures of exploitation and reaches the surprising conclusion that the exploitation of children declined during the Industrial Revolution.

Chapter 5 examines the effects of the Factory Act of 1833 and subsequent child labor laws. Nardinelli finds that the Factory Acts caused children's employment in textile factories to decline in the short run. He maintains, however, that the long-term decline in child labor was caused not by legislation, but rather by a combination of falling demand for and supply of child labor, a result of technological changes in textile production and increasing income of adults. Nardinelli also contends that factory legislation probably did not improve children's welfare, because children who left textile factories were forced to find other employment, which probably was equally onerous. In chapter 6 Nardinelli compares the adoption of child labor legislation in Britain with the process in France, Germany, Japan, and the United States.

In sum, Nardinelli presents a sweeping reinterpretation of child labor and the Factory Acts. The model of household production developed in chapter 3 represents a useful tool for understanding the determinants of the supply of children to work in the factories. The book's major contribution is the discussion of the importance of changes in supply and demand for explaining the long-term rise and decline of child labor in factories. Nardinelli is certainly correct in claiming that the Factory Acts were not the major determinant of the decline in the employment of children aged 10-14 in factories.

There are, however, problems with the book. There is no model, and little discussion, of the demand for child labor in textile factories. A model of demand could have helped to determine the effect of the employment of children on the employment and wages of adult males. In chapters 5 and 6 Nardinelli appears to argue that children and adult males were substitutes. In chapter 4, however, he maintains that children's employment in textile factories did not affect the wages of adult males. The evidence he presents in support of this conclusion is very weak.

A model of the demand for child labor also could help to explain the adoption of the Factory Act of 1833. Nardinelli suggests that the Factory Act "may have been more an effect of the decline |in child labor~ than a cause" (p. 115), but he offers no evidence to support this hypothesis. There is little discussion of whether textile manufacturers or members of Parliament for Lancashire or the West Riding of Yorkshire opposed or supported the act. Nor is there any discussion of the effect of the act on the profits of textile firms or on the employment of adult males in factories.

I am also not convinced by the evidence Nardinelli presents that children employed in textile factories were not exploited. He examines the health of factory children, but he does not address the crucial issue of whether children employed in factories were less healthy as adults than other children. His conclusions concerning the job mobility and future prospects of child workers, and the effect of child labor on the wages of adult males, are based on very scanty evidence. I am not arguing that children were exploited, only that Nardinelli does not show that they were not.

These criticisms aside, this book is a welcome addition to the literature on child labor. It corrects several errors in the traditional literature and extends our understanding of the role played by children in the Industrial Revolution.

George R. Boyer is associate professor of labor economics in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University. He is the author of An Economic History of the English Poor Law, 1750-1850 (1990). At present, he is working on labor market integration and the economics of trade unions in Great Britain from 1850 to 1914.
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Author:Boyer, George R.
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1991
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