Cash assistance, not child labor, can fix the labor shortage

Photo by Sam Deeb

Marc Doussard


Child labor hasn’t gone away. Instead, it’s taking the graveyard shift.

In early May, Department of Labor inspectors found two 10-year olds working past midnight in a McDonald’s in Louisville, Kentucky. The same investigation found more than 300 underage workers employed illegally by McDonald’s franchise operators across the state.

State legislatures have responded with horror — horror that the law prohibits child labor. Arkansas rolled back key child labor protections earlier this year. Not to be outdone, Iowa’s Republican Governor Kim Reynolds recently announced she’ll sign a bill that greenlights employing 14-year-olds in roofing, construction and other dangerous work. On the federal level, in sharp contrast, the Biden administration has begun a crack-down on child labor violations.

The purported reason why states are loosening these laws is to fill jobs vacated by adults. While it’s true that we need people to take jobs — the estimated national labor shortage hovers around 3 million workers — this rationale doesn’t add up. Companies hire children because they’re easier to manage and complain less — but Republican legislators are convinced that the way to fill these open positions is to recruit kids.

But there’s a much better, and far less unethical, solution: Enacting a universal basic income, or UBI, a no-strings-attached, monthly cash payment to all citizens. Such a program would protect children from being hired into exploitative and dangerous jobs by soothing the labor shortage. Simply put, people need resources to find and keep jobs. The way to fill empty positions is through cash.

At first glance, making regular payments to citizens sounds like an invitation for people to bypass work altogether. Yet abundant evidence from dozens of basic income trial programs in the United States and elsewhere shows the opposite: People work more, not less when they receive regular cash payments.

When we take a close look at the lives of low-wage workers, this surprising result begins to feel like common sense.

People who work low-wage jobs and people who give their all to ensure households can make ends meet on the federal minimum wage of $7.25 know that myths surrounding recipients of government benefits don’t match reality. It’s not the will to work more that’s missing, it’s the ability. UBI plugs that gap.

Research on basic income trials explains why. When people gain access to no-strings-attached, regular cash, one of the first things they do is fix their cars, so they can get to work or take on a second job. Or they go to the doctor, or sign their kids up for day care. They eat healthier, sleep more, and pay off debt. In other words, people use the extra cash to address basic things that get in the way of finding and keeping a job.

What’s more, basic income recipients are also more likely to start and complete educational programs, and are more likely to benefit from basic types of job training.

The pathway to implementing a national UBI is long, but not as long as it appears. More than 100 U.S. cities are currently planning, conducting or concluding basic income trial programs. The size of this list is the point: we have been living through a grand experiment in cash assistance and the results are overwhelmingly positive.

Addressing the labor shortage with a basic income has the kinds of side effects politicians always claim they want: More work, more education, less debt, less stress, and better health. More basic income trials will inevitably pop up in even more cities, but they’re superfluous. We know it works and it can save many children from harm.

Marc Doussard is professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the author of multiple books about low-wage work. This column was produced for Progressive Perspectives, a project of The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.