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Public Policy Affects Farm Families, Especially When It Comes To Child Labor

Farm parents may decide to put their kids to work on the family farm to teach them important life skills, but economic pressures determine how much work children do, according to a UW-Madison agricultural economist who recently examined the roles of women and children on farms.

“This study shows that kids and women are very important: their labor keeps family farms running,” says Lydia Zepeda, a professor in the Department of Consumer Sciences. “Women often work off the farm as well, providing extra income and health benefits for their families, and they play an integral role in decision making.” Zepeda received a Hatch Grant from the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences to interview farm couples about family life and decision making. Her work is particularly important because it focuses on women and children, two often-overlooked groups.

Zepeda says that while male farmers have always been aware that women and children are essential to a farm”s success, people off farms may not know that farms are operated by families, not just a single person. “Most people think of farmers as male,” she says. “Women on farms consider themselves farmers, but they aren”t perceived that way.” Furthermore, a mother”s increased contribution to income reduces her children”s work hours, while when a father”s contribution increases, so does work for his family.

Changes in child labor are very important when it comes to understanding how farm policy affects farm families, explains Zepeda. “The agricultural situation is very difficult right now-farming is in dire straits,” she says. “When farm policy puts economic stress on farms, families feel the need to have their kids do more work to help the farm survive.” She adds that farms can sometimes be dangerous workplaces, especially for kids.

When interviewing farm couples, Zepeda found that most wanted their children to work on the farm to learn skills like work ethic and problem solving, as well as so the family can spend time together. However, when farms face financial difficulties, children often put in more hours of labor to help out. Zepeda learned that older children work an average of 16 hours per week, but some work up to 40 hours a week in addition to going to school. “We can speculate that kids who put in so many hours must be overly tired at school, which may lead to decreased academic performance,” says Zepeda. “Farm parents stressed that school should come first, but it”s hard to do homework or extracurricular activities when you”re working 40 hours a week.”

Zepeda adds that she is very concerned about what farm policy is doing to farm families. “When policy causes economic strain on family farms, kids are pushed to work too many hours. Parents want their kids to work on the farm to learn values and skills, not to do a fulltime job. Unfortunately, sometimes there is no choice.”