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Pencil or Paycheck?

Nidhiya Menon in the field

by Samantha Mocle
August 17, 2015

Child labor is illegal in India. But on the streets outside Delhi’s central railway station, shoeshine boys work hard to support their families. In fact, sending children to work instead of school is a way of life in many developing countries, says Nidhiya Menon (pictured right), associate professor of economics at Brandeis International Business School (IBS).

“In India, you grow up seeing scenes like this every day,” says Menon, who, among other projects, studies the interaction of child welfare policies and incentives that drive behavior among individuals, households and firms in poor countries.

Menon discussed the quandary of schoolwork versus paid work that confronts many families in the developing world, noting similarities that may go largely unnoticed in the U.S.

What’s the reason for the lack of enforceable child labor laws in the countries you research?

In poor countries without social safety nets, parents often have no choice but to send their children to work to supplement household income or, in many cases, generate all of it. When there are few good schools and when teacher quality is weak, or when there is little labor market demand for skilled workers leading to underemployment, there are few long-term incentives to send children to school. This conundrum is especially true in India where primary school enrollment has now reached high levels, with dramatic drop-offs at secondary and higher schooling levels.

Do you see circumstances changing with prosperity?

We need broad-based change to reduce child labor. Occupational changes such as a demand for more educated workers might make it worthwhile for poor families to send their children to school in the long term. Geography and class play a role as well. You would hardly ever see an upper-caste child working in India except perhaps to build skills. Southern India has always been more progressive in its views when it comes to education and health, so many more children remain in school in those states. 

Are there efforts underway to solve this problem?

In my current work, my co-author and I are trying to understand what setting minimum wages might mean for child labor. Such regulations could reduce child labor by guaranteeing households a certain level of income. But since such rules also impose a cost on firms, which often reduce the number of workers they hire (usually the least-skilled, least-educated) as a consequence, the need for children to work to supplement household earnings could actually increase. If there was a quick fix to the challenge of child labor, I think that we would have seen it by now.

Does your research have implications in the U.S.?

The social benefit system here is much more developed, but the most vulnerable still fall through the cracks. I would not be surprised if more children from poorer households drop out of school to work, or attend school part time so that they can work simultaneously to contribute to household income. We do not openly see children working as shoeshine boys in Penn Station, but I think that below the surface, many of the forces that drive child labor in poor countries are prevalent among the less privileged sections of American society as well.