The Wilson Quarterly

The specter of a 10-year-old hauling bricks or stirring a vat of boiling liquid is far from eradicated in the developing world, where the International Labor Organization estimates that 218 million children are working at least part time instead of concentrating on school. But the reality of child labor is much more nuanced than such images suggest, according to new research by Marigee P. Bacolod and Priya Ranjan, economists at the University of California, Irvine. Poor children are not always consigned to work. New research from Cebu City in the Philippines shows that a significant percentage of children who are not in school are simply idle.

One of the main differences between children who go to school and those who don’t is academic ability. Children with high IQs—but with parents in the bottom third of the income scale—are nearly as likely to attend school (88 percent) as those from the most affluent third (89 percent), according to a study of 3,000 children in randomly selected Cebu City districts. Asked why their offspring were not in class, parents were most likely to respond that their children had “no interest” (36 percent). Even within the same poor family, children with high ability were more likely to attend school than their less able brothers and sisters. Clearly, Bacolod and Ranjan say, some parents faced with paying the costs of education for children with low ability decide not to send them to work but to allow them to stay home. More than one in every 10 children in the study went to school and worked at the same time.

Richer families were more likely than poor ones to send their children with lower IQs to school. And parents were also more likely to dispatch their young of all ability levels to school if the facilities were better—judged by the presence of electricity, running water, toilets, and a usable blackboard.

An outright ban on child labor, which is often proposed as a solution to the horrors of the brickyards and tanning factories, may have a perverse effect, according to the researchers. Parents who now send children to school while they are also working may respond to such a ban by pulling them out of school entirely and choosing the option of idleness.

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THE SOURCE: “Why Children Work, Attend School, or Stay Idle: The Roles of Ability and Household Wealth” by Marigee P. Bacolod and Priya Ranjan, in Economic Development and Cultural Change, July 2008.

Photo courtesy of the International Labour Organization in Asia and the Pacific

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