Book Reviews

Children’s Work, Schooling, and Welfare in Latin America

by David Post

Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2001, 304 pages, paperback, US$38,

ISBN: 0813339154

Reference citation:

Adams, M. (2002). [Review of the book Children’s Work, Schooling, and Welfare in Latin America by David Post]. In Focus Journal, Vol.1,1.

The outlines of the modern consensus on child labor and compulsory education grew out of the polemic that initiated with the Industrial Revolution’s stark redefinition of the nature of childhood. In time a bias in favor of formal education as the preferred occupation of children came about as the gradual sophistication and diversification of the economic base took place. Some analysts would contend that this evolution is a natural progression driven by market forces. They point to the fact that late industrial and postindustrial economies demand and offer greater rewards for an educated and more highly skilled labor pool. Their contention is that market forces have lead nearly every nation to adopt compulsory attendance laws and restrictions on child labor as a part of the globalization of the institution of mass schooling. The continued widespread prevalence of children laboring in many settings throughout Latin America and the world belies this apparently facile assumption and gives cause for a review of the forms of modern child labor and its effect on their participation in the educational process. This work undertakes that analysis in both a qualitative and quantitative fashion by reviewing the status of laboring children in Chile, Peru, and Mexico. The author’s aim in this work is to highlight the complex array of social and economic forces that underlie the institutionalization of child labor in these societies.

The discussion initiates with a review of the reality of child labor in the context of modern Latin America. The author reminds us that a “social variant” posits erroneously that the paradigm established in the developed world concerning child labor and educational policy, will be in due course replicated in Latin America. A gradual adoption of more sophisticated technology throughout the economy should over time drastically reduce the demand for unskilled labor and eliminate the economic incentive for the poorer segments of the population to have larger families. Taken further market forces will engender the willingness by all classes to invest in the education of a reduced number of offspring. Both David Post and the proponents of this set of assumptions concur with the notion that the intrusion represented by this facet of the globalization process is justified and in the best interest of society.  Yet the author cautions against the inevitability of a felicitous outcome based solely on the premise that normative and institutional isomorphism are certainties once polities have adopted laws concerning compulsory attendance and restrictions on child labor. A more cautious review of history will show that ordinances banning child labor were either not passed or rigorously enforced until it had become clear that it was no longer remunerative to maintain the status quo.

David Post utilizes the elements of the paradigm in order to evaluate three national settings to determine if the criteria that lead to the isomorphic assumptions are arranged in the requisite order and if not how the model differs. The reader is then informed that most of the positions that still demand unskilled labor have not been eliminated, but most often relegated to labor markets in developing areas such as Latin America where wage structures provide capital the greatest profit. This tendency was heightened as a distinct feature of the globalization of the world’s economy and has accelerated since the 1980’s.  At this point the object ought to be how to go about devising policies most suited to the cultural nuances, economic structures, and political realities characteristic of each setting rather than relying on the vagaries of market forces. In short this is a presentation that eschews dogmatic presumptions in favor of reasoned analysis building upon previous findings as a tool for analysis not a schema for prediction.

At several points in the work it is made abundantly clear that this work is meant to be a part of the meta-narrative that has lead to the gradual abolition of the worst excesses of child labor and the concomitant global expansion of educational opportunities. As the first section unfolds the author cites the acceptance and codification of child welfare protections outlined in such documents as the International Labor Organization’s Convention 182 and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children have been significant achievements in this direction. This along with a presumably unstoppable modernization of the economic base would suffice (following one prevailing interpretation) to offset the pressing need of the poor in Latin America to resort to the recourse of seeking employment for their young in some analyses. This perspective is flawed Post informs, due in part to its willingness to ignore the fact that for large segments of the populations in Peru and Mexico economic modernization has not lead to a generalized prosperity. There have been instead drastic declines in real income for many forcing families to rely on the wages of their offspring. The incapacity or lack of volition on the part of some nations to provide the poor with access to quality educational opportunities and the perpetuation of the demand for child labor in spite of legal prohibitions insures the maintenance of the status quo. Another primary focus of the narrative is that the execrable quality of the educational opportunity offered to the poor is often paramount in influencing parents to make the decision not to sacrifice the child’s income. The author cautions that to effectively deal with the problem and prevent it from becoming truly intractable, studies such as this one must look to determine the true extent and nature of the modern forms of child labor and their interaction with schooling.

In order to provide a context for this analysis the narrative undertakes a review of the basic attitudinal perceptions. Child labor we are reminded has always existed and it is only in the modern era that civil society has sought to regulate its terms and conditions. We are reminded that whenever such a revision of so basic an institution as the family and deeply embedded cultural norms about childhood takes place it will be met with resistance. Determining the scope and nature of a given culture’s conservative opposition to change is a preliminary step for all educational planners, one that leads to an appreciation that the imposition of normative assumptions will often lead to novel and unexpected outcomes. The orientation of policy initiatives must be toward the inclusion of elements in programs best suited to achieving the desired goal by incorporating attitudinal elements embedded in the particular cultural environment.

The presentation proceeds to adequately outline the parameters of the debate over the basis of civil authority to regulate the terms of childhood that have served to justify such a redefinition of childhood to bring it into accord with this globalization of childhood institutions. Public discourse on these topics revolves around the rights of the child and the legitimacy of their curtailment for the sake of the welfare of society. As a civil liberties issue it may be assumed a child has the right to choose whether or not to labor or partake of the educational opportunity provided by society. On this score the author asserts that the discussion must include a review of the capacity of the child to appreciate the ramifications of the choice being made. The dominant view that emerged on education holds that enforcing compulsory attendance laws, best protects the child’s and collective best interest. A 1956 UNESCO conference in Lima was the catalyst for nations in the entire Latin American region to accept the legitimacy of these basic premises and enact laws to enforce them nearly a half a century ago to bring their practice in line with what are now considered global norms. In Post’s view policy initiatives must bring current practice into compliance with these ordinances.

He continues with this theme by suggesting that governments are operating within their legitimate purview by insisting that the advancement of society depends on the education of the general population. This legitimizes state’s preemption of parental discretion concerning the option to forego education and seek employment for the child. The idea that the general welfare is enhanced to such a significant degree that parent’s and child’s rights to choose must not be allowed to contravene enjoys widespread support ranging from the idealistic determinations of the International Labor Organization to the pragmatic considerations of the World Bank. Yet predictably in such a scenario not all segments of society can or wish to accept this determination. Some such as impoverished parents reject it for pragmatic reasons, others to take advantage of the opportunity to exploit young workers. As noted these elements and others have yet to be addressed in their local variants.

Several themes are thus established in the initial section of the work that will be reiterated throughout. The first is that merely passing legislation is not of itself sufficient to elicit the support of parents and others to prevent child labor for the reasons touched upon here. Globalization schemes such as this one will quite often engender local resistance leading to unpredicted outcomes even if not carefully formulated. This is especially so in the face of declining levels of real income for the poor within an ever evolving and complex set of socioeconomic circumstances. A second is that there must be a sustained focus on improving the quality of the educational programs for the poorest segments of society if they are ever to be convinced that the deferment of immediate income is truly in the child’s and the family’s best interest. The third and perhaps most important is that no one involved in the policy making process should proceed on a priori assumptions and should instead attempt to orient their determinations around a full comprehension of the dynamics found by a close study of each case.

Next the focus shifts to a review of the particulars of the forthcoming analysis of Chile, Peru, and Mexico. This is accomplished through a discussion centered on the prevailing consensus regarding these topics. The text does not hesitate to focus attention on the full spectrum of opinions on these topics. Post acknowledges that perhaps poor parents should not be conceived as exploiting their young so much as seeking to “insure the survival of the extended family” an evidence of a deeply ingrained response mechanism heightened by cultural factors.  Nor does he ignore the representative voices such as that of social activist Rosaura Galeana who suggests “the experience with work represents an important means through which children are socializing themselves and preparing themselves for life”.  The reader is clearly aware that it is not the intention of this text to denigrate beliefs concerning the positive formative socializing and educative aspects of work or to deny the capacity for social agency of child workers. It is rather to exhibit that evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that child labor most often translates to exploitation and a truncating of human potential. The author posits that the most common factors behind the persistence of child labor are the family’s poverty coupled with the incapacity of financially strapped governments to guarantee equal educational opportunity for all. The inclusion of these divergent opinions about varied cultural concepts concerning education and work is to exemplify how critical it is to ground policy decisions within the context of place, without forfeiting one’s perspective.

The continuing struggle to form an international and individual Latin State’s consensus concerning child labor is outlined as well.  This is a preliminary step and indispensable in order to elicit the political and moral support of the world community. An insistence on the part of some that the globalization of cultural norms explicit in these discussions a need not be universally accepted is an issue not fully resolved to date even in advanced societies. Post comments on the intransigence of some nations including the United States to fully accept the conditions of the declaration of the United Nations Conference on Children’s Rights as a case in point. A conclusion provided is that even though the three nations focused on in the work have fully endorsed the most progressive statements of principle, they all have not as yet fully adjusted their practice.

A discussion of the multinomial logistic regression model employed is provided. A handicap was the need to rely on existing data produced by instruments formulated by the respective governments to garner general information concerning the economic and social progression of individual households over a ten-year period. In no case were these surveys specifically prepared with an eye to providing data on educational and child labor. Yet by devising a common set of categories from relevant data included in each, the researchers were able to isolate factors that had a direct bearing on the activities, family social status, and cultural attitudes concerning education and work of the juvenile populations. It was able to isolate regional variations within specific nations. This allowed for statistically significant determinations to be drawn in each case and inter- cultural comparisons to take place. It should be noted that Chile and Mexico’s findings were found to be better suited for employment with this model than Peru’s. In all three cases the lack of funds prevented a more focused study of the specifics of school attendance and the modes of child labor. As expected the study pointed to commonalities and divergences in developments between both or all three countries. The findings produced here are sound and should serve to guide subsequent investigations and policy directives should funding become available.

The work notes that Chile’s educational progress in the last decade parallels its economic success. A unique element pointed to here was the Chilean system’s adoption in 1980 of a client-centered model for school choice. Parents were given a subsidy and the liberty to choose whatever school they deemed best suited for their child. This experiment with market-oriented variant of public support was to become the most ambitious experiment to date in neo-liberal educational policy. After more than a decade in practice it had failed to significantly dent the performance gap between social classes and the ever-chronic distinction between underachieving rural students and their urban counterparts. The author presents an objective review of the causes for the failure of these initiatives, which left the not easily accessible rural and marginal students with limited opportunities. It highlights the fiscal incapacity of Chile or indeed most nations to provide every segment of society with the full range of educational options the free market model envisions. This pinpoints a flaw in the neo-liberal schema commented on by many i.e., its arguably excessively idealistic tenets do not translate well as guides for institutional structures in most settings and its orthodox ideologues have as yet failed to provide adequate responses when confronted with this reality. More specific to the Chilean situation were cultural attitudes that militated against the concept of total free choice in education. Post comments that the reintroduction of a more traditional centralized state directed scheme oriented toward targeting the lowest performing schools for additional funds has been considerably more productive in addressing gaps in student performance. The most notable aspect being the progress made with schools in the countryside.  It is suggested that to its credit Chile retains the most decentralized educational system in Latin America, where funding decisions are primarily oriented toward enhancing student enrollment and achievement.

In the text we find that Peru’s progress both in the last decade and a half stands in stark contrast to Chile. It has lurched from one period of economic crisis to another the turmoil often wreaking havoc on the educational funding. Throughout the period educational policy has remained heavily politicized and centrally controlled. In actuality the Ministry of Economy and Finance makes all decisions concerning funding for education. This unproductive approach is the antithesis of the client-oriented model of educational demand with which Chile has experimented. The author takes note that future reformers will have one factor to build on. Peru’s population has since colonial times displayed a near reverential regard for education as the key for personal advancement.

Mexico’s case stands between the two poles exemplified by its textual counterparts. A principal issue of concern for the author concerning Mexico is its failure to undertake a concerted effort in the nineties to bridge the gap between urban and rural students. An ominous development on the economic sphere was the impetus given agricultural production by the NAFTA accords. Greater demand for agricultural products has in turn created a viable option to school for the children of the rural poor and will, if not addressed, allow this problem to become intractable. The demand for their labor is intense especially during peak seasons. To be successful a policy designed to assist these children will require more than just a reform of educational practice.

The strengths of this presentation and insights to be gleaned from it are so manifold as to preclude their being touched upon in so short a review. It unfolds as a well-rehearsed narrative created by an intellect exceedingly well versed in the particulars of the subject matter. There is as well an enthusiasm and vibrancy to the prose, which carries the reader through a very detail laden presentation. The data provided and the methodology employed to obtain it inspire faith in its validity. The refined critical sense of the author coupled with his voluminous grasp of detail allows this piece to function as an ideal primer for graduate students in the field of International and Comparative Education. It is possible, without any suggestion of hyperbole, to assert that this book merits inclusion on every required readings list.

Michael Adams

Florida International University