The Wolf at the Door”: Determining Entitlement to Children's Wages

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 9:10 AM
Centennial Ballroom B (Hyatt Regency Denver)
Jennifer Robin Terry, University of California, Berkeley
English common law (as applied during America’s colonial period) recognized a hierarchal mutual obligation system between a father and his children.  The father was obliged to provide sustenance, shelter, vocational and religious training, and rudimentary education.  In exchange, he was entitled to the child’s obedience, labor, and wages.  This doctrine persisted largely unchallenged throughout the industrial period.  In 1918, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hammer v. Dagenhart decision declared the 1916 Keating-Owen child labor law unconstitutional, affirming that parents still held entitlement to their working children’s wages.

This paper examines the doctrine of parental entitlement and the practice of mutual obligation over the course of the succeeding two decades with specific focus on working children in the burgeoning motion picture industry.  By the 1920s and 1930s, changing perceptions regarding the nature of childhood, a growing middle class, compulsory education laws, and public opposition to child labor meant that fewer children were gainfully employed.  Those children who did work, typically earned low wages that merely supplemented the family income.  However, children’s earning potential in the burgeoning motion picture industry, and especially during the 1930s child star era, was so great that successful child actors often became the sole family breadwinner.  More often than not, this led to exploitation of the child beyond the mere fulfillment of mutual obligation.  While histories of child actors often recount tales of exploitation, they typically point to the 1939 California Child Actors Bill (Coogan Act) as the remedy.  However, the law was loophole ridden.  This paper argues that legislation such as the Coogan Act and the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act actually exacerbated, rather than alleviated, child actors’ vulnerability; a condition that would not begin to be redressed until an amendment to the Coogan Act in 2003 recognized child actors’ rights to the entirety of their wages.

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