Arkansas State Capitol

Given Arkansas’s nearly total ban on abortion, the Arkansas Republican Party has shown itself to be very much concerned with protecting unborn children. They appear to be less concerned about those kids who are actually living in Arkansas.

Back in March, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed into law the Youth Hiring Act of 2023. This new law lifts the requirement that children under 16 get permission from the Department of Labor before they can get jobs. The state no longer has to verify the age of those under 16 who are working.

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In a similar vein, the education overhaul law known as the LEARNS Act requires public school students to complete 75 hours of free labor, labeled “community service,” to graduate.

Some of you might be saying, “I worked as a teenager, and it built character!” But is sending kids to work at a young age always a good thing? We can turn to the data to find out.

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Child Protections and Educational Attainment

A more educated populace makes for a stronger, healthier society. As education levels rise, so do economic growth, life expectancy, civic engagement and overall happiness. The idea that greater education is a net positive for a state is not just a Democratic ideal either.

In signing the LEARNS Act, Gov. Huckabee Sanders said, “We’ve seen how the status quo condemns Arkansans to a lifetime of poverty, and we’re tired of sitting at the bottom of national education rankings. We know that if we don’t plant this seed today, then there will be nothing for our kids to reap down the line.” In essence, children have one very important job, and that is to go to school. But what is the effect of looser child labor protections, like those passed by Arkansas Republicans this past session, on educational attainment?

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In 2022, Human Rights Watch graded each state in the U.S. on child rights. This score takes into account child labor, corporal punishment, child marriage and juvenile justice. A state that is perfectly in line with child rights standards on all four of these issues would receive a score of 100. There is no state in the U.S. that reaches this standard, with New Jersey achieving the highest score of 73.75%.  Arkansas is middle of the pack with a score of 55.63%, and Mississippi brings up the rear with a score of 19.38%.

Drilling down into the data, let’s take a look at how these scores correlate to the percentage of the state that has completed college.

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Figure 1 shows the relationship between strong child protection laws and the percentage of the state over the age of 25 with a bachelor’s degree. Each diamond represents a state (with the outliers of West Virginia and Colorado labeled), and the red line represents the overall relationship.

When the child protection score is higher, educational attainment is higher, and substantially so. If a state has a child protection score of 75%, we can expect that about 24% of that state’s residents over the age of 25 will have a bachelor’s degree. When the state’s child protection score is 20%, we can expect that only about 17% of residents over the age of 25 will have a bachelor’s degree. This is a 7-point difference in percentages, which is sizable.

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Of course, the causality on this could be backwards. States might have fewer child protections because the state has a lower level of educational attainment to begin with. After all, it is the voters of a state who choose the governments.

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To address this possibility, we can look at the relationship between child protections and the percentage of the state’s population between the ages of 18 and 24 who have a bachelor’s degree. This works because people who are 18 to 24 are unlikely to have influenced the government to a large enough degree to have changed child protection scores. This is for three reasons: 1) they represent a small percentage of the voting population, 2) they haven’t been able to vote long enough to make a sizable impact on who’s been elected, and 3) this group tends to turn out to vote at an exceptionally low rate.

The relationship between a higher child protection score and the percentage of the state between the ages of 18 and 24 with a bachelor’s degree (Figure 2) looks similar to what we see in the population 25 or older. When the child protection score is 75%, we can expect about 15% of people in a state between the ages of 18 and 24 to have a bachelor’s degree. In contrast, when the child protection score is 20%, we should expect that only about 8% of people between the ages of 18 and 24 will have a bachelor’s degree. The absolute percentages of people with a bachelor’s degree are lower for the 18-24 crowd in this category who haven’t been out of high school long enough to complete a bachelor’s degree. However, the split is, like we saw in Figure 1, still 7 percentage points.

This data tells a very clear story: When states protect child rights, those children go on to achieve greater educational attainment. When states don’t protect children, those kids are less likely to complete college.

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Of course, different segments of the population may be affected differently by child protection laws.

Figure 3 shows the relationship between child protection score and the percentage of people in a state from three different racial or ethnic groups who hold a bachelor’s degree. The maroon line is the effect of stronger child protection laws on non-Hispanic white educational attainment, while the navy line represents the effect on Black educational attainment, and the gray line represents the effect on Hispanic educational attainment.

Importantly, all three lines have what is known as a positive slope. As child protection laws become stronger, educational attainment for all groups increases.

Increasing the child protection score from 20% to 75% in a state produces an expected increase of about 4 points in the percentage of Hispanic residents holding a bachelor’s degree. The increase among Black residents is about 5 percentage points. Notably, we can expect about 27% of non-Hispanic white residents to have a bachelor’s degree when the child protection score is 20%. When the child protection score in a state is 75%, almost 40% of non-Hispanic white residents in that state are expected to hold a bachelor’s degree. This is an increase of 13 percentage points, which is substantially greater than the increase among Black and Hispanic residents.

Put simply, child protection laws increase educational attainment across races and ethnicities. But unlike with most other social trends, the group that bears the largest relative burden when child protection laws are weak is actually non-Hispanic white people. Still, keep in mind that under all circumstances, Black and Hispanic educational attainment is lower than non-Hispanic white educational attainment.

Arkansas’s Child Protection and Education

In terms of child protection scores, Arkansas was in the middle of the pack in 2022. That’s likely changed. Arkansas Republicans have been making it easier for business interests to abuse child labor. So don’t be surprised to see educational attainment in the state also decrease in the coming years.

If the government in this state is truly focused on improving Arkansas’s educational landscape, as they say, they should strengthen child labor protections rather than loosen them. But, no; Republicans in our state legislature have bigger fish to fry, like making sure they tell kids what toilet they’re allowed to urinate in.

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