They lived in Mississippi at the time this photograph was taken, having recently relocated from their farm in Alabama. The photo was one of many thousands taken by a man named Lewis Hine during his career. Mr. Hine was employed by the National Child Labor Commitee for a decade to document the conditions faced by kids working in mills, glass factories, coal mines, and other urban occupations. His photos from this period are always interesting, and very often emotionally moving.
Often accompanying the photos are short captions identifying the conditions and working hours of the people photographed. Too, there are sometimes quotes from the subjects of the pictures - as there is with this photo. The three girls in the front row worked in a textile mill. He quotes one of them as saying,
"We all like the mill work better'n the hot sun on farm".
It's a simple quote, but one that illustrates some things that most people forget in this day and age. Here are some random thoughts that bubbled up when I read that quote....
1. Modern people look at child labor, and harsh industrial working conditions in general, as an anomaly. In truth, our current standards of safety and luxury are the anomaly. Throughout most of recorded history the lives these people lived were the norm - even for children. Kids began work at the age of 6 or 7, and were expected to do an adult's share of labor by the time they were 12 or 13 years old. This was common not only after the industrial revolution but preceding it as well, on farms and ranches all over the world.
If you were a kid back in those days, you were going to work - and work very hard. Usually 12 hours a day 6 or 7 days a week. The only question was where you would be working and for how much.
2. People today look at the conditions faced by "the poor" in early industrial settings and see it as evil perpetrated on the masses by rich fat cats building their empires on the backs of poor laborers. To some extent, that is true - in that the farther up the chain you went the better the conditions and higher the rewards.
However, it is extremely important to remember that no one forced these families to leave the farming communities they lived in previously and flock by the thousands to urban areas to work in mills and mines. They did so largely because, as harsh as those industrial conditions were by our standards today, they were a damned sight better than life they had led before. The pay was better, the conditions were better, and they benefitted greatly from the shift. That was the whole reason they made the move.
3. Much is made today about the next generation no longer moving forward and "having it better" than the generation before. This may be true from a narrow, static, monetary number based view. However, what is often ignored is the overall quality of life faced by people today compared to just a short time ago. The "poor" today often have cell phones, televisions, multiple automobiles, computers, .... Just a short 50 years ago there were large areas of the country that didn't have indoor plumbing and electricity.
I'm not rich by any modern measure. I would probably fit into the "lower middle class" category if I were to quantify it. However, a short walk around my house will find conveniences that would have amazed my Grandfather - and even my Parents - had they been described to them when they were young. Truth be told, if you walked around the home of a modern "poor" person you would find many aspects of their living conditions that would make a middle class person of the past green with envy.
4. Hunger in America is supposed to be an awful problem. I hear about it on the radio and TV several times a day. Oddly enough, Obesity is also supposed to be an awful problem too....
I hear directors of food banks declaring emergencies over the "growing problem" of hunger in America because no matter how much food they give away it never seems enough to satisfy the demand. No one stops to consider for a moment that when you give stuff away for free..... people will take it. Doesn't matter what it is and it doesn't matter whether the recipients "need" it or not. You give it away, someone will take it. That fact seems to elude people for some reason.
We have a population over 300,000,000 in the US right now. If hunger were such a dire problem, don't you imagine that someone, somewhere, would die of starvation at some point?... Just doesn't happen. Even the tiny number of people who starve due to some sort of psychological condition (anorexia, etc.), or kids dying from abusive restriction of food by their parents is so statistically small as to not even register. People just don't die in America because of lack of affordable food. Even the CDC reports that low income and "poor" kids are more likely to be obsese than their financially better off counterparts.
Food banks do serve an important purpose by helping people out in the short term that are down on their luck. However, the "Hunger in America" agenda is largely a solution in search of a problem.
None of the above should be construed as an indication that I am in favor of child labor, think there's no such thing as a poor person, or don't appreciate the fact that hard times effect people in unpleasant ways. I contribute to several charities, though I don't walk around wearing it on my sleeve or openly promoting that fact.
Life can be hard. It can be even harder at times. That's the nature of life. Utopian dreams of magically, or forcefully, making everything equal and "fair" always fall short in their result when compared to the initial dream. Often tragically so.
I guess what I'm trying to get across here is that with all the class envy being bantered about in public discourse these days its important to have some perspective when trying to sort it all out.