Most parents, especially those with teenagers, know the increasing costs of having children, but in Pricing the Priceless Child, Viviana Zelizer investigates the declining economic value of American children during the past century. Zelizer charts this decline from 1870-1930, noting the simultaneous increase in the sentimental value of children. She notes that, starting in 1860, the economic value of American children increased dramatically because rapid industrialization opened new factory occupations for poor children. Progressive reformers, however, recoiled at the concept of the economically “useful” child and were eventually able to convince their fellow citizens that children should be economically “worthless,” but emotionally “priceless.”

It is to Zelizer’s credit that she recognizes the priority of moral and cultural movements over economic forces, but she fails to explain adequately the internal dynamics of the reform movements she examines. She fails, for example, to analyze the religious and scriptural teachings about children that inspired many reformers. It is remarkable, also, that Zelizer could devote so much attention to the industrial revolution, child insurance, wrongful child death laws, and adoption practices in documenting the changing attitudes toward child labor and yet treat the push for a “family wage” only in passing, and then with derision as a plot by greedy capitalists and oppressive patriarchs trying to perpetuate the “cult of true womanhood.”

For Progressive reformers trying to liberate women and children from factories and mines, where they performed dangerous and tedious labor for low wages, no goal was more important than the establishment of a “family wage,” a single income sufficient for a man to support his wife and children in modest comfort. Reformers recognized that real wages would never rise as long as entire families were forced to compete against each other. For several decades the family-wage movement succeeded in shaping legislation and cultural norms so that virtually all children and most women were taken out of the factory, while married men were generally paid more than the few women who remained in the workforce, even when women did the same work. Much of the family-wage system was voluntary, however, and when in the I950’s women began to enter the workforce in great numbers, the legal and social constraints holding the family-wage system together quickly crumbled. Today, some fear that the constraints on child labor will be the next to go. Some analysts credibly argue that the collapse of the family-wage system has contributed to the dramatic increase in social and domestic problems in America, and they argue for at least a partial restitution—perhaps through tax reform.

Curiously, Zelizer’s laudable ability to understand the interplay between the economic, political, moral, cultural forces in the 1870-1930 debate over child labor fails her when she turns to examine the contemporary scene. She seems oblivious to the rapid decline of the American family in recent decades and to the need for political and cultural initiatives to reverse this trend. Instead, she smiles kindly on the current feminist egalitarian model of family life, calmly accepting the increasing presence of single and working mothers in the workplace. She argues that established family roles can change and that the demise of the full-time housewife may create a part-time “househusband” and “housechild.” She will not admit that the unbridled pursuit of money and career by many women and men, at the expense of their families, has caused many of our most serious contemporary social problems.

Zelizer is right to praise the Progressive foes of child labor for upholding “social, moral, and sacred values” against the “rationalization and commodification of the world.” But so long as she remains unwilling to confront contemporary threats to the family, including careerist feminism, she will only reinforce those forces that are slowly making modern America as hostile to humane child-rearing as were the most squalid company towns of the Gilded Age.


[Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children, by Viviana A. Zelizer; New York: Basic Books]