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March 1990, Vol. 113, No. 3
Work and family: the impact of legislation
Sar A. Levitan and Frank Gallo
Governmental policies have both shaped and responded to radical changes in the work experiences of American families during the 75 years since the Monthly Labor Review began publication. Assessing the impact of governmental policies is an elusive endeavor because it is difficult to distinguish governmental actions from the myriad economic and social factors affecting employment decisions. It is even harder to separate the influence of governmental policies on families as opposed to individuals, because almost everyone lives in a family at some time.
Most governmental social programs in this country emerged during three brief periods: the Progressive Era between the turn of the century and World War 1, the New Deal in the mid 1930's, and the Great Society in the 1960's. State initiatives dominated the first period, while the Federal Government led the succeeding movements. The Government primarily has sought to assist families beset by crises: unemployment, disability or death, old age, and poverty. (See exhibit 1.) The New Deal initiatives, the foundation of the modem welfare system, largely reflect attitudes formed by the Great Depression. Until that calamity knocked a fourth of the labor force out of work, the prevailing view was that individuals could control their destiny in the workplace and that adult joblessness and poverty among able-bodied persons reflected personal shortcomings.
The government role
Shorter working lives and workweeks for men, the mass entrance of women into the paid work force, and decreased poverty among workers distinguish the work experience of the modem family from its early 20th century counterpart.
Reduced working time. The abolition of child labor, shorter workweeks, postsecondary schooling, and retirement benefits have dramatically reduced the proportion of time men spend working outside the home.1 Increasing productivity, combined with governmental policies, has significantly influenced these developments.
The growth of child labor laws and of State legislation making school attendance compulsory worked hand in hand to transform children from laborers to students. Massachusetts enacted the first child labor and compulsory school attendance statutes in 1836 and 1852, respectively. Most States followed suit during the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, but these laws were riddled with exceptions, and enforcement was minimal.2 Reflecting the prevalence of child labor, the decennial census included 10-year-olds in its count of gainfully employed persons until 1940. Some 43 percent of 14- and 15-year-old boys worked at the turn of the century, dropping to 23 percent two decades later. However, these figures may have understated the true extent of child labor because, before 1930, fewer than half of all teenagers were enrolled in high school.3
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1 "Two Hundred Years of Work in America,"in Employment and Training Report of the President (Washington U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976), p. 144.
2 Growth of Labor Law in the United States (Washington, U.S. Department of Labor, 1967), pp. 11, 14-15, and 45-46.
3 Twelfth Census of the U.S.: 1900, Volume 2, Population, Part II (Bureau of the Census, 1902), p. 2; Fifteenth Census of the U.S.: 1930, Population, Volume 5, General Report on Occupations (Bureau of the Census, 1933), p. 144; and Digest of Education Statistics, 1988 (Washington, U.S. Department of Education), p. 60.
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