The Price We Pay for Having Upper-Class Legislators

There is a coordinated, nationwide effort to roll back child labor laws, part of a broader campaign to concentrate even more power into the hands of employers.

“Since 2021,” the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute notes, “28 states have introduced bills to weaken child labor laws, and 12 states have enacted them.” In 2024 alone, eight states have either introduced or taken new action on bills that would, for example, allow employers to schedule 16- and 17-year-olds for unlimited hours, allow nonprofits to hire 12- and 13-year-olds and eliminate work permits for young people altogether.

One way to understand this fight to roll back labor laws is as a function of conservative ideology and a reflection of the views of the social base of Republican politics. It’s almost axiomatic that a party dominated by reactionary business owners is going to support, as much as possible, the interests of reactionary business owners.

But this analysis can take us only so far. We also have to explain why it is, on a practical level, that this agenda has advanced so far and so fast. There is partisan control, of course — Republicans are leading the assault on labor laws — but there is also the class composition of our state legislatures.

Out of more than 7,300 state legislators in the country, 116 — or 1.6 percent of the total — currently or last worked in manual labor, the service industry, or in clerical or union jobs, according to a recent study conducted by Nicholas Carnes and Eric Hansen, who are political scientists at Duke University and Loyola University Chicago. By contrast, about 50 percent of all U.S. workers hold jobs in one of those fields.

This problem afflicts both parties. In the last legislative session, the study found, 1 percent of Republican lawmakers and 2 percent of Democratic lawmakers had working-class backgrounds. In 10 states — Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia — not a single state lawmaker works or has recently worked in an occupation that researchers would define as working class. Three of those states, incidentally, are ones in which lawmakers have recently loosened rules on child labor.

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