Thursday, June 30, 2011

Fagernäs on Birth Registration and Child Labor Laws

Sonja Fagernäs, Department of Economics, University of Sussex, has posted Protection Through Proof of Age: Birth Registration and Child Labor in Early 20th Century USA. Here is the abstract:
A birth certificate establishes a child's legal identity and is the sole official proof of a child's age. However, quantitative estimates on the economic significance of birth registration are lacking. Birth registration laws were enacted by the majority of U.S. states in late 19th and early 20th centuries. Controlling for state of birth and cohort effects, the differential timing of birth registration laws across US states is used to identify whether birth registration changed the effectiveness of child labor legislation between 1910 and 1930. The incidence of child labor declined significantly in the early 20th century. The study finds that if a birth registration law had been enacted by the time a child was born, the effectiveness of minimum working age legislation in prohibiting under-aged employment more than doubled. This effect was stronger for children residing in non-agricultural areas.
This is in line with what I learned from a little research, conducted for my 2007 exam in American Legal History, on the administration of the Keating-Owen Act between its passage in 1916 and its demise in Hammer v. Dagenhart (U.S. 1918).  To quote from the exam:
A second issue was what evidence to accept in certifying the age of the child. The states were only just beginning to require the official registration of births; in North Carolina, where many children labored in textile mills, fewer than one percent of births were registered. After conducting public hearings of employers and state officials, a regulation was adopted that declared birth certificates the most reliable evidence, followed (in descending order of reliability) by baptismal records, Bibles regularly used to record a family’s vital statistics, and affidavits from two doctors, one of whom had to be a member of the U.S. Public Health Service. (Employers unsuccessfully attempted to add the affidavits of parents to the list.)
In general, the administration of the Act by the Child Labor Division of the Children's Bureau of the Department of Labor struck me as an interesting, if of course truncated, episode in the history of the American state.  The Division's director, the Chicago social worker Grace Abbott, struggled to develop procedures that maximized the reach of her small staff without falling violating doctrines of doctrines of administrative law and procedure that were only just taking shape.  (Among Abbott's legal advisers were two allies from Chicago's reform movement, Ernst Freund and--wait for it--Roscoe Pound.)  A nice master's thesis or dissertation chapter could be written by someone with the requisite legal and historical skills and access to the National Archives.

1 comment:

Shane Landrum said...

Funny that you should mention this-- I've written that chapter! My dissertation's on the history of birth certificates in the United States from the mid-19th century to the present, and it uses the Children's Bureau papers as a significant source. I'll be defending it during the upcoming academic year.

In 1915, only ten states (6 in New England, plus NY, PA, MI, MN, and the District of Columbia) registered at least 90% of each year's births. During the operation of the Keating-Owen Act, most of the young workers in Southern textile-milling states used their parents' family Bibles or life insurance policies as proof of age. All those Progressive-era child-protective laws-- higher ages of marital consent, compulsory schooling, child labor restriction, juvenile protection from felony prosecution-- depended on birth certificates.

The Children's Bureau (founded 1912) championed compulsory birth registration as its first major initiative. With a compulsory-birth-registration law, a state could generate accurate birthrate and infant-mortality statistics as well as providing children with accurate proof of age. Most states which used Sheppard-Towner Act funding to support maternal and child health initiatives used that money to build state-level infrastructure for birth registration-- appointing local registrars, training doctors and midwives to register births, and such. In 1933, Texas became the last of the 48 continental states to reach that 90% standard. (For the state-level details, see this interactive visualization.) The Children's Bureau constantly answered questions from mothers and young letter-writers about how to get a birth certificates--- especially after 1938, when the Fair Labor Standards Act went into effect.

Young people's needs for birth certificates also led states to pass birth-certificate-amendment laws to protect children who were born out of wedlock and later legitimized by parental marriage or adoption. These statutes became the precedent for modern laws allowing for the amendment of birth certificates for transsexuals.

States with political cultures that were hostile to expanding public health and birth registration systems during the 1910s and 1920s inadvertently made it difficult for native-born Americans to prove their own birthright citizenship later in life. In 1940, the US Census Bureau estimated that one third of working-age Americans-- 43 to 54 million people-- had no access to a birth certificate of their own. This created a significant bureaucratic crisis at the state level, enough that the War Manpower Commission eventually dropped its requirement for documentary proof of citizenship by factory workers.

Virginia's a great example of how this worked in practice. The Virginia Racial Integrity Act (1924), which was used to enforce racial marriage restriction, was implemented as a birth registration law. Anyone who needed to prove that they were old enough to work legally had to go through a delayed-birth-registration proceeding, which meant sending in proof of their parents' "race" to the state registrar's office. (Peggy Pascoe, Peter Wallenstein, Paul Lombardo, and many others have written about Plecker in detail, but the whole story looks different once one realizes that this law was about someone's fundamental document of citizenship.)