In 1800, most Americans (94%) worked and lived on farms. After the Civil War, many left the farms to work in factories but the pay was low for men and even lower for women and children (a situation similar to what has been happening in China for the last few decades–this evolutionary transition happened in the US first. Now it is repeating itself in other countries.).
If life was so harsh in the cities and factories, these migrants could have stayed on the farms and I’m sure most would have if life had been better on the farm, but it wasn’t. For a migration of this size to take place means those people were desperate. That many people do not walk away from a good thing to be treated as if they were slaves.
Legally, children as young as age three worked in US factories (this is illegal in China today). A high number of children also worked as prostitutes (also illegal in China today). Many children (and adults) worked 16 hour days. That would not change until 1938 with the Federal regulation of child labor in the Fair Labor Standards Act.
For an example of what life was like in the US for children before 1938, the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission paints a vivid picture:
“From the early 1800s, children were an integral part of the textile industry’s work force. In the Manayunk district of Philadelphia, children as young as seven assisted in the spinning and weaving of cotton and woolen goods. By 1828, nearly half of Manayunk’s one-thousand laboring residents were children under the age of fifteen. In nearby Kensington, children labored as bobbin boys and girls from sunrise to sunset earning one dollar per week. Exhausted at the end of the work day, some slept in doorways and alleys near the mills. Philadelphia’s 1820 census found that 40 percent of the eleven-hundred workers employed in some thirty-nine textile firms were children.“
Annie Lowrey of the New York Times on 9-21-2012, reported on a study of Who Makes It Into the Middle Class, and education plays an important role but so does the environment and family a child grows up in.
Lowrey wrote, “Isabel V. Sawhill, Scott Winship and Kerry Searle Grannis tackled the question of why some children make it to the middle class and others do not, studying criteria that tend to be indicative of later economic success and examining how race, gender and family income come into play.”
The study discovered that graduating from high school was not enough.
In fact, a child that graduates with a grade-point average above 2.5 with no criminal conviction and no involvement in a teenage pregnancy had an 81% chance of joining the middle class as an adult. A child that does not meet this criteria only had a 24% chance.
The study found that “Children from disadvantaged families are less likely to be ready for school at age 5, less likely to be competent elementary-school students, less likely to graduate from high school without a criminal record or a child, and so on.”
I find it interesting that the study did not blame public school teachers for this.
Benchmarks for measuring the success of public schools is set by politicians in Washington DC and the capitals of the fifty American states, and teachers have no say in those benchmarks. In addition, public school teachers (all college educated with additional training required before becoming a credentialed teacher) have very little to do with the curriculum they teach or the methods used to measure success or failure of the public schools in the United States.
For example, if the Congress and White House says teachers must jump ten feet and they only jump seven, then they have failed and that is how the media reports it. Nowhere do any of these benchmarks for measuring the success of public schools include parents and the environment a child grows up in. Teachers are told to jump ten feet (with no pole, pogo stick or trampoline to help) with no consideration for the impossible.
The formula for education is simple:
teachers teach + students learn + parents help in every way possible and that equals education.
Teachers cannot replace parents or learn for his or her students. All a teacher can do is teach. If a child goes home and does not study or read, the teacher cannot jump the ten feet that Washington DC demands. If you still are not convinced, I suggest reading Not Broken.
What is wrong with the US Congress and the White House that they are so blind they cannot see this?
Return to A Short History of America’s Middle Class – Part 2 or start with Part 1
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga.
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