Unrepresentative Democracy and Child Labor

We're getting weird policies almost nobody is asking for.

I can’t help but think that two stories in my feed this morning are related.

Axios (“Our lawmakers are more religious than we are“):

Members of Congress are more Christian — and more religious — than the American public by wide margins, according to an analysis of data reviewed by Axios.

Why it matters: The discrepancy — a trend also present in state legislatures — provides a window into why policies and debates on abortion, LGBTQ rights and other issues often don’t reflect what Americans want.

  • It also shows how the nation’s two-party system, with its partisan primaries, favors candidates who openly profess a faith — even as the number of people unaffiliated with a religion is growing.

By the numbers: About 90% of those in Congress say they practice some form of Christianity, from Catholicism to conservative evangelicalism to progressive Unitarianism, a survey by Pew Research Center and Axios found.

  • But the latest survey by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute’s American Values Atlas found that only 64% of Americans identify as Christian — and the percentage has been dropping.
  • Less than 4% of Congress members say they’re unaffiliated with religion or don’t know. PRRI’s survey says nearly 27% of the general public is unaffiliated.

Zoom in: In today’s politics, the success of conservative and evangelical Christian Republicans in pushing their agenda has created large gaps between lawmakers’ priorities vs. public sentiment.

  • Since the Supreme Court’s decision last year to overturn the constitutional right to abortion, for example, Republicans and some conservative Democrats in Congress have blocked efforts to codify abortion rights.
  • As a result, Republican-led state legislatures have passed waves of restrictions on abortion at a time when roughly six in 10 U.S. adults believe abortion should be legal in “all or most cases,” according to a 2022 Pew Research Center survey.
  • There’s been a backlash, though: Some Republican leaders cite abortion as a big reason the party has lost several elections in recent months.

Conservative Christians and evangelicals also have led a movement to restrict LGBTQ rights at a time when most Americans support gay rights and same-sex marriage.

  • This year, conservatives in Washington and in several states have focused on restricting the rights of transgender people — particularly trans girls and women who are athletes.
  • On Thursday, the U.S. House followed several state legislatures in passing a bill that would bar trans girls and women from competing in sports designated for women.
  • Polls indicate Americans support protecting trans people from discrimination, but that they’re uneasy about allowing trans athletes to compete in women’s sports.
  • The House bill has no chance of passing the Democrat-led Senate or being signed by President Biden.

What they’re saying: “We are at a place in the country right now, where in many states the country has shifted, but the composition of our elected officials has certainly not kept up,” said Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI.

  • In Texas, where white evangelicals dominate the Legislature, only 15% of the state’s residents identify as white evangelicals, while 20% of all residents are religiously unaffiliated, Jones said.
  • Such differences there and nationwide have created discrepancies between elected officials and the general public on climate changebook bansrace relations and trans rights, he said.

Yes, but: There’s a different type of religious gap between some Democrats and the general public.

  • Black and Latino members of Congress, mostly Democrats, almost all identify as Christians — even as the number of religiously unaffiliated Black and Latino Americans continues to rise.
  • Pew Research Center survey found that Latinos with no religious affiliation went from 15% in 2009 to 23% in 2019.

WaPo (“The conservative campaign to rewrite child labor laws“):

When Iowa lawmakers voted last week to roll back certain child labor protections, they blended into a growing movement driven largely by a conservative advocacy group.

At 4:52 a.m., Tuesday, the state’s Senate approved a bill to allow children as young as 14 to work night shifts and 15 year-olds on assembly lines. The measure, which still must pass the Iowa House, is among several the Foundation for Government Accountability is maneuvering through state legislatures.

The Florida-based think tank and its lobbying arm, the Opportunity Solutions Project, have found remarkable success among Republicans to relax regulations that prevent children from working long hours in dangerous conditions. And they are gaining traction at a time the Biden administration is scrambling to enforce existing labor protections for children.

The FGA achieved its biggest victory in March, playing a central role in designing a new Arkansas law to eliminate work permits and age verification for workers younger than 16. Its sponsor, state Rep. Rebecca Burkes (R), said in a hearing that the legislation “came to me from the Foundation [for] Government Accountability.”

“As a practical matter, this is likely to make it even harder for the state to enforce our own child labor laws,” said Annie B. Smith, director of the University of Arkansas School of Law’s Human Trafficking Clinic. “Not knowing where young kids are working makes it harder for [state departments] to do proactive investigations and visit workplaces where they know that employment is happening to make sure that kids are safe.”

That law passed so swiftly and was met with such public outcry that Arkansas officials quickly approved a second measure increasing penalties on violators of the child labor codes the state had just weakened.

In Missouri, where another child labor bill has gained significant GOP support, the FGA helped a lawmaker draft and revise the legislation, according to emails obtained by The Washington Post.

The FGA for years has worked systematically to shape policy at the state level, fighting to advance conservative causes such as restricting access to anti-poverty programs and blocking Medicaid expansion.


The youth hiring or employment bills, as they are often titled, represent growing momentum among conservatives who contend that parents and not government policy should determine whether and where 14- and 15-year-olds should work.

“When you say that a bill will allow kids to work more or under dangerous conditions, it sounds wildly unpopular,” Campbell said. “You have to make the case that, no, this is really about parental rights, a very carefully chosen term that’s really hard to disagree with.”

I’ve noticed, as I’m sure most of you have, the trend toward moving backward on child labor but had wondered where it was coming from. It’s too reductive to say that Republicans are controlled by “big business,” since that’s less true than it was even a decade ago and yet this push seems new. But I think the Axios take on the Pew survey helps explain it: those making the laws are simply wildly out of sync with those they represent.

We’ve spent a lot of time over the years discussing the unrepresentative—indeed, undemocratic— features inherent in America’s political institutions. While we’ve mostly focused on structural features like the overrepresentation of rural interests in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College as well as the inherent weirdness of winner-take-all voting, the party primary system gets less attention. Given that, in most elections, there is at most two political parties who can realistically win a given office, the fact that the party candidates are chosen in a separate contest in which only the most rabid partisans tend to show up further skews the outcomes.

I would wager there are few Americans, indeed, clammoring for more child labor. And yet we’re getting it.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Lounsbury says:

    Applying the word “conservatives” to the strange reactionary ideologues that wish to remove or abolish child labour restrictions is a bit of mental blinding and laziness on the part of US journalists.

    The idea that normal, non-political ideologues, in business woud desire child labour as a matter of policy is just… utterly unhinged.

    Rather like the example of the war on Disney this rather says that it is not Big Business any longer that controls the Republican party but a fraction of ideologues with more a Mr Pillow Poujadiste kind of petit-bourgeouis reactionary base.

  2. just nutha says:

    I take it that you weren’t at last week’s conversation about the Iowa child labor bill?

  3. drj says:


    The idea that normal, non-political ideologues, in business woud desire child labour as a matter of policy is just… utterly unhinged.

    Why wouldn’t business want (cheap) child labor?

    In most cases, it wouldn’t make much economic sense, because skilled labor is usually the way to go – at least in most circumstances.

    But on farms or in meatpacking plants? Child labor is already quite prevalent. Why not remove the penalties and other associated hassle? More money for us!

  4. drj says:
  5. Just nutha says:

    @drj: Sure more kids die in agriculture, but only because Amazon doesn’t hire kids to work in their warehouses yet. Check back in 4 or 5 years.

  6. BugManDan says:

    @Just nutha: If your point is that Amazon etc. are going to start hiring children because of these laws, you may be right. But if you are saying that a meatpacking plant is just as safe as an Amazon warehouse, I would need to see some actual data before I believed that.

  7. Sleeping Dog says:


    I suspect that a shockingly high percentage of the children killed in agriculture met their demise while working on the family farm or the family’s, ag related business. Accidental death of kids in ag, has existed long before the development of corporate agriculture.

  8. Lounsbury says:

    @drj: Why, because for ordinary ‘Big Business’ business this is neither efficient nor overal price effective. Leaving aside deranged Leftist moustache twirling stereotypes, what one wants is high-efficiency for hour-wage paid in labour (and in USA land why on earth take the chance of labour led personal injury lawsuits etc). This for quote unquote, Big Business, with access to capital and thus an ability to invest in labour saving automation that has better overall productivity, more reliability in end-product quality.

    The people who desire child labour are deranged reactionary ideologues whose goals are not really economics rooted and non-big business SME family business engaged in corner cutting and who are likely to be the petit bourgeouis Poujadiste profile.

    And of course family farms, which despite the fetishisation by Left and Right are and always have been nasty affaires of short-cutting on all fronts.

  9. just nutha says:

    @BugManDan: I don’t have the article anywhere, but Luddite posted an item from the Seattle Times here last year asserting Amazon’s worker’s comp premium was going up by several hundred percent as they had led the state in claims the previous year. More dangerous than logging as I recall.

  10. KM says:

    It comes from the need to control Gen Z and the upcoming Gen Alpha. Conservatives have noted that the elder youth are PISSED and starting to fight back. Controlling the children under the guise of “parental rights” has the duel benefits of pleasing authoritarian parents and keeping down the incoming wave of change on top of the business perks. The kind of parents this logic appeals to are Gen X and Millennials who may not be conservative per se but buy into the logic that they own their children, lock stock and barrel and need to impress *their* morals and ethics on the young. Barring extreme financial need, why would you want a 14yr working long hours instead of focusing on school and growing up? To “teach” them something: life is hard tough cookies, work will make you free, slave wages build character, load 16 tons and what do you get, etc. These are the kind of things you hear parents brag about pushing on their kids as a great life lesson and wisdom imparted to make them strong…. meanwhile the kids resent the hell out of it, it causes problems in all kinds of development and tends to cement the poverty cycle for another generation.

    14yrs working is a failure of a wealthy society in multiple ways, especially if it’s done to make some sort of point. It’s done to drag kids into the work meatgrinder as early as possible so they can’t improve themselves or the world, to keep the rising voice for change silent as much as possible.

  11. drj says:


    Leaving aside deranged Leftist moustache twirling stereotypes

    I was trying to show you (with links and all) that there is, in fact, in certain industries a rational economic case to be made (assuming these kids didn’t get hired out of pointless cruelty) for unskilled child labor.

    And instead of engaging with the point, you just had to bring in deranged leftists somehow.

    Grow up.

  12. gVOR08 says:

    I’m probably less concerned about the high proportion of avowedly Christian politicians than I should be. They’re politicians. Odds are a lot of them are lying about it.

  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @BugManDan: @just nutha: Seattle Times blocked me but I did find this.
    And checking some other data, I found that the premium rate increase wasn’t as large as I’d remembered–by a significant margin. Still, Amazon leads warehousing in industrial injuries requiring more than first aid. A significant achievement.

  14. daryl and his brother darryl says:

    Child labor explains the GOP’s obsession with controlling American vaginas.

  15. Michael Cain says:


    Why, because for ordinary ‘Big Business’ business this is neither efficient nor overal price effective. Leaving aside deranged Leftist moustache twirling stereotypes, what one wants is high-efficiency for hour-wage paid in labour (and in USA land why on earth take the chance of labour led personal injury lawsuits etc).

    Certainly Google is unlikely to hire children. But the small business that vacuums the floors and cleans the toilets every night using minimum-wage no-benefits employees will.

  16. CSK says:


    Oh, I’m positive that many, if not most, of those devout Christian politicians are lying about their commitment to their faith. There are parts of the South in which you can’t get elected unless you pretend to be a good Christian.

    Imagine an open atheist being elected POTUS. You can’t.

  17. Lounsbury says:

    @Michael Cain: The small family business, as well as the medium sized yes – exactly the Poujadiste profile or in USA terms now, the biz-MAGA backers.

  18. becca says:

    The FGA that is fronting this movement is just another grift that keeps on gifting for a bunch of right wing billionaires and their chief henchman, Leonard Leo. The aim is to continue dismantling our already flimsy social safety net. Would these groups be able to operate if Citizens United was overturned? Is it my imagination or has there been an explosion of right wing nut job “non-profits” ever since money somehow means free speech?

  19. KM says:


    what one wants is high-efficiency for hour-wage paid in labour

    Ideally, yes. But if you think anyone hiring children is going to pay them adult wages even if required by law (and they’re not always required to!!), you’re nuts. The whole point of minors is they can’t protest the way adults will – cheating a 14yr on their wages is very easy because they’re not gonna complain or notify the authorities just like they won’t be able to rat about workplace violations. Anyone screwing over their child workers isn’t gonna have the appropriate posters with contact info for the government where it’s supposed to be accessible to them. Their silence and ability to be intimidated regarding business maleficence is more valuable then their slightly lower cost effectiveness.

    In fact, the only real way kids today have to bring this things to light is social media and guess what? You’re fired if you go viral for your TikTok about your boss stealing your tips, not paying you for whole days of work or the disgusting work conditions you experience.

  20. Jen says:

    I get the feeling that the entire point of these child labor law relaxations is to get the price and complaint suppression that these companies can typically count on being provided by illegal immigrants from people who are citizens.

  21. Andy says:

    The Axios piece is annoying because they don’t bother to adjust for or even mention age. It took me 2 seconds to look it up, and ~70+% of people 50 and older are religious in some part. The median age of Congress is 58, and the Senate is 65. Therefore, the religious difference is, for the most part, a function of age.

    And it’s also worth pointing out that the demographics of people who actually vote also skew older compared to the median population.

  22. wr says:

    @Lounsbury: “Leaving aside deranged Leftist moustache twirling stereotypes, what one wants is high-efficiency for hour-wage paid in labour (and in USA land why on earth take the chance of labour led personal injury lawsuits etc). ”

    Sure. This would explain why Nike and all the big apparel manufacturers refuse to contract out to factories in Bangla Desh and elsewhere with workforces that are filled with children.

    Oh, wait.

  23. Sleeping Dog says:


    It is being driven by small business and anti-immigration R’s. NYT’s article this AM on Biden’s changes to processing asylum claims. TL/DR is that they’ve put in place a system whereby asylum seekers can apply from their home country and not appear at the border. If the refugee has someone to sponsor them, they can enter the country and work immediately. An example given was a company in North Dakota that sponsored 10 refugees and hired them all, plus provided housing. They had been trying to fill those positions for months.

  24. Raoul says:

    Give me a break. We have been getting minority rule for a while now, assault weapons, book banning, not raising the minimum wage, tax cuts for the wealthy, not to mention the aforementioned abortion bans and banning child law protections. The whole conservative movement is a cultish devotion to a roll back to antediluvian times centered on rabid evangelicals. Texas is now considering installing the Ten Commandments in every classroom, how is that not religious devotion.

  25. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @drj: Grow up.

    Give up.

  26. gVOR08 says:

    WIKI has a page on the Foundation for Government Accountability,

    The FGA is funded by a broad swath of conservative and Republican donors. Its 5 largest donors in 2022 were the Ed Uihlein Family Foundation, the 85 Fund, a nonprofit connected to political operative Leonard Leo, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the Searle Freedom Trust, and Donors Trust.

    The Billionaire Boys Club. Nut job libertarians. But I don’t know why they’re picking on child labor laws that date to the 30s.

  27. Gustopher says:

    Perhaps the labor of the children is besides the point, and they just want unsupervised access to children, from a position of authority.

    (Alternately, perhaps this is really being pushed by the pedophile insurance industry, who want to be able to expand their market out of churches.)

  28. CSK says:

    The LATimes is reporting that Tucker Carlson was fired on Rupert Murdoch’s order because of a discrimination lawsuit filed by producer Abby Grossberg, and also because of Carlson’s insistence that government agents were involved in January 6.

    The dismissal, according to the LATimes, wasn’t related to the Dominion lawsuit.

    And for a final touch, Carlson apparently said some unkind things about managers at Fox.

  29. CSK says:


    Damn, I meant to put this in the open forum. Could one of our genial hosts move it.

  30. Kathy says:

    So, instead of providing daycare for families that can’t afford it, they are given the opportunity to send their kids to work in a supervised environment where they can make money.

  31. Gustopher says:

    @CSK: every time I see the word “genial” I immediately think it’s a typo, and then struggle to see how “genital” fits, and only after that do I remember that “genial” is a word.

  32. anjin-san says:


    The American Dream, GOP version. Start work at 13, and work till you die…

  33. gVOR08 says:

    @anjin-san: Which might be 14.

  34. Slugger says:

    @Gustopher: Deberías estudiar español. Then genial will seem like an ordinary word.