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Study: Illegal Child Labor in the United States
Sponsored by The Associated Press

VI. Trends in Illegal Employment Since 1970

How has the rate of illegal employment of youths changed over time? This question was addressed using March CPS datasets from 1971 to 1997. Youths age 15-17 are coded as working illegally if their employment appeared to violate federal standards on excessive hours and hazardous occupations, which have not changed over that time. Because the sample size for any one March survey is small, this analysis combines the 1971-90 surveys into four groups with five years each, and divides the 1990's into the 1991-94 and 1995-97 periods.

Illegal employment, as shown in Table 4, appears to have been slightly more prevalent in the 1970's than in the 80's and 90's.{1} An estimated 1.3% of all youths, and 4.8-4.9% of employed youths, were working in violation of federal child labor laws in the 1970's (columns 3 and 6). These percentages declined in the 1980's and early 1990's, although the 1995-97 period shows a apparent slight upturn again (although the upturn is not statistically significant, while the overall decline since 1970 is statistically significant).{2} This pattern holds true both for the percentages working excessive hours and in hazardous occupations. It does not mesh with the pattern of detected child labor law violations, which almost tripled from 1983 to 1991 (U.S. GAO, 1992), indicating either that enforcement activity became more intense over that time or that illegal child labor increased in ways that do not appear in CPS data (e.g., in sweatshops or among children younger than age 14{3}). Overall, an estimated 169,000 youths age 15-17 were working illegally in an average school week in the late 1970's, which declined to 100,000 in the early 1990's but has increased to an estimated 114,000 in 1995-97. Future research can profitably address these changes over time and see how they may be explained by changes in the economy and family circumstances.


{1} The comparison between 1970's and later numbers may be contaminated by changes in the occupational coding scheme in 1983, possibly affecting the hazardous occupation numbers. There was, however, no noticeable break in hazardous occupation prevalence between 1982 and 1983, and the change in illegal employment between the 1970's and 1980's was greater in illegal hours worked, so the change in coding scheme cannot account for the overall downward trend in illegal employment. Earlier trends in 14- and 15-year-old labor market participation (including both legal and illegal employment) are reported by Westcott (1981), who finds a slight increase from 1954 to 1979 (18.1% to 20.7%) due to a strong increase in the participation of girls combined with a slight decrease among boys.

{2} The 1995-97 numbers will not exactly match numbers elsewhere in this report since this is limited to March surveys.

{3} The trend for 14-year-olds through 1988 (the last year for which employment data were collected for them) was similar to the trend for 15- to 17-year-olds.


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