Child Labour: Economic Development And The Intergenerational Poverty Persistence Cycle


Child labour is simultaneously the cause and the consequence of the lack of economic growth in developing countries. Putting children to work delays economic development, and without economic development, more children find themselves put to work. This creates a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty. The poverty cycle and inability to receive an education play key roles in the struggle to eradicate child labour.

The United Nations has named 17 Goals for its Sustainable Development Agenda, referring to this set of goals as “the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.” The eighth of these Sustainable Development Goals is “Decent Work and Economic Growth.” As the U.N. defines this goal, in order to claim a better future, we must “promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all.” As part of this project, essentially, we must end child labour.

Eric V. Edmonds’s paper, “Economic Growth and Child Labour in Low Income Economies,” does a good job of explaining how child labour is affected by economic growth. Edmonds believes, based on years of intense research, that policy discussion around sustainable development should pay a greater level of attention to child labour.

Firstly, high levels of child labour in a developing country delays the country’s economic growth, but simultaneously, economic growth will also lead to a decline in child labour. This phenomenon is caused by the following factors:

  • The more widespread child employment is, the lower the wages for unskilled workers are – child labour is unskilled work. Low wages have long term consequences on the economic growth for the country because when there are too many unskilled workers, the workforce is discouraged from adopting new technologies. This hinders growth.
  • Countries acquire technology which they believe will add value to factors they are already proficient in. The more a country relies on child labour, the less likely it is that that country is willing to acquire new technology – thereby decreasing growth and leaving countries worse off over the long term.
  • Economic growth in a country will decrease the level of child employment. In poverty-stricken areas, child workers’ wages are a valuable source of household income. As the economy grows, and parents’ wages theoretically increase, children are required to work less. In the short term, economic growth might lead to more child labour as new employment opportunities open up, but in the long run, better pay can be expected to decrease the necessity of child labour.
  • When more workers are willing to work at a certain pay rate than there are jobs available, the workers compete for the jobs, which decreases the pay rate. Because child workers are often more desperate and agreeable than adults, children can be hired at lower wages. This leads to more children being employed at increasingly lower wages. This then leads to more children being employed at ever-lower wages. This is the driving force behind the vicious cycle of poverty – child labour leads to low wages, which fuels the need for child labour.

Education is the fundamental key to encourage economic growth. But when the younger generations are employed, children are unable to attend school. There are only so many hours in the day, and child workers are forced to choose between their employment and their education. If work is required after school hours, that employment may help the family to afford school expenses, making it easier for the child to attend school – but on the other hand, this decreases their personal development, as the lack of free time prevents them from socializing with others. Millions of families must face this challenging decision every year.

The lack of access to education is one of the main reasons that child labour still exists today. Jackline Wahba concluded in her 2006 article, “The Influence of Market Wages and Parental History on Child Labor and Schooling in Egypt,” that, with all else being equal, the children of child labourers are more likely to become child labourers themselves. Wahba suggests that child labourers are disadvantaged as they have access to very limited education and a much higher probability of hindered physical and mental health. Working so young leads to physical and mental consequences, which come into play in adulthood, leaving parents unable to work. This then leads to them being economically poorer as adults compared to those who did not work as children. Their children are then forced to go into early employment as a way to provide for the family. Children are all regarded as “unskilled” in the workforce and will start at jobs with very low wages – poorer starts, unfortunately, tend to mean that there will be a career of unskilled occupations with low wages. This intergenerational cycle poses a great challenge to those looking to improve child welfare.

Due to the intergenerational poverty persistence cycle, child labour is both a cause and consequence of a lack of economic development. Economic improvement will, in theory, eradicate child labour, but child labour discourages economic improvement. Education is another way to break this intergenerational cycle, but working prevents children from attending school. This cycle is the devastating reality for so many nations, families, and individuals worldwide. As Grace Abbott said, “Child labour and poverty are inevitably bound together and if you continue to use the labour of children as the treatment for the social disease of poverty, you will have both poverty and child labour to the end of time.”

Isabella Patrick

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