Department of Economics

Papers, please! The effect of birth registration on child labor and education in early 20th century

What effects has birth registration had on social behaviour?

A birth certificate establishes a person’s legal identity and age.  But what other significant effects has birth registration had on social behaviour?

Birth registration laws were enacted by U.S. states in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The timing varied across U.S. states. It was quickly perceived that these documents could have multiple uses.

Summary

This paper by Dr Sonja Fagernas provides a quantitative analysis of the relevance of birth registration laws for the enforcement of child labor and schooling laws in a historical context, focusing on early 20th century USA.

It examines whether legal age requirements were more effective in reducing under-aged employment and in raising school attendance of school-aged children, when birth certificates were available as proof of age.

The study documents the development of birth registration systems and laws. It also describes relevant developments in minimum working age legislation and compulsory schooling laws, based on existing data.

To our knowledge, this is the first study to provide statistical evidence on the effects of birth registration laws in the USA.

Methodology

The core part of the analysis in this study utilizes individual-level data from 1% samples of three U.S. federal censuses: for 1910, 1920 and 1930. The focus is mainly on 12–15 year old children. Statistical methods are used to analyze the connections between registration laws and the tendency of under-aged children to work and for school-aged children to be in or out of school.

The longer term effects of birth registration laws on educational attainment are studied with the use of the 1960 census. 

Key Findings

This study provides evidence that state-level laws on birth registration substantially improved the enforcement of minimum working age legislation and to some extent also compulsory schooling legislation in early 20th century USA. In particular, minimum working age legislation was twice as effective in reducing under-aged employment if children had been born with a birth registration law, with positive implications for school attendance.

There is some evidence that registration laws also improved the enforcement of schooling laws for younger children. The retrospective analysis with the 1960 census shows that there has been a positive long-term effect of registration laws in increasing average educational attainment by approximately 0.1 years. 

Overall, the results imply that legal age requirements are more likely to be enforced with a functioning birth registration system in place. This study has a historical focus, but the questions addressed remain relevant for today's developing countries, where birth registration rates can remain low.

Access the paper

Fagernas, Sonja (2013) Papers, please! The effect of birth registration on child labor and education in early 20th century USA. Explorations in Economic History. ISSN 0014-4983

To access the full paper, see Sussex Research Online