Child Labor Group’s Depressing Picture

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When Lewis Hine took his historic pictures of child laborers as a photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) from 1908 to 1921, he captured the essence of the horrific child labor practices of the time. His photos helped NCLC become a leading voice in the movement toward fair labor standards.

Nearly a century later, the same organization is in such dire financial straits that it has sold the last of the Hine collection that served as a symbol of its past glory.

The recent sale of NCLC’s last 280 Hine photographs to a New York art dealer for $90,000 knocked the organization’s accumulated debt down to $250,000, a hole that director Jeffrey Newman attributes to the cancellation of the annual Lewis Hine Award fund-raiser in November because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Recent coverage of the sale by The New York Times suggests that the group’s survival might “not matter: the organization has simply run its course.” But Newman and other youth advocates point to the group’s more recent mission of early work preparation as a sign that it is on a new course – and is badly in need of assistance.

NCLC’s days as a heavyweight among child labor watchdogs are in the past, though not for lack of effort. “When we see a story in a newspaper, we still try to be the first on the spot,” says Newman. A former journalist, he has directed the group since 1974, a few years after NCLC sold 9,200 Hine photos to the University of Maryland for $60,000.

Newman testified 15 years ago, when Congress considered weakening labor laws, but more recently has relied on op-ed pages to push his cause. Maintaining a presence is difficult, he admits, with a staff of six. “We cannot do investigations or oversight,” Newman says. “We [have to] keep in touch with organizations that are hands-on, like Farmworker Opportunities Program.”

NCLC’s waning efforts to keep children out of the workplace yielded over the past decade to a program that prepares young children to enter the workforce. Named KAPOW (Kids and the Power of Work), the program teams businesses with elementary schools in six states and the United Kingdom. Business leaders speak to youth about their experiences on the job. Each year the kids travel to a local worksite, where they meet with each division of a company to learn about the responsibilities each person carries.

The program got off to a rocky start in 1992 when it was discovered that British-owned Grand Metropolitan, which made an initial $1.7 grant to KAPOW the same year, owned the Burger King chain, which had been notorious for child-labor violations (“Did Burger King Co-Opt Child Labor Watchdogs?” January 1993). Burger King settled its case with the U.S. Department of Labor and hired NCLC to develop law-related training for managers while GrandMet continued to support the early-work program.

Newman says KAPOW has served more than 500,000 youths. A 1997 evaluation by the Brandeis University Center for Human Resources called it “a replicable national model that can serve as the elementary-school-level component for communities developing K-12 school-to-career activities.”

But Grand Metropolitan merged with Guinness in 1997, and new conglomerate Diageo abruptly ended its commitment to NCLC. Since then, says Newman, KAPOW has barely survived on the small contributions of local businesses. “KAPOW is one of a few early-work preparation programs in the country,” laments Brandeis Professor Andrew Hahn. “It is really a shame that they have so much trouble finding money.”

Newman cites two reasons that the program is not attractive to funders. “A lot of people think that this whole aspect of youth work is a government area, and that funding related private organizations is duplicative,” he says.

The other reason is more cynical, seeming to come from the former professional baseball player’s five years of pitching KAPOW to potential donors and striking out: “The reality is, employment and training programs are not sexy. We don’t treat a disease … We aren’t focusing on child abuse or issues that are on the front pages.”

NCLC is surviving on a few grants awarded over the past six months by the Edna McConnell Clark, Public Welfare and William Randolph Hearst foundations. But unless KAPOW and the NCLC can snare larger, long-term financial support, “neither will weather the storm,” Newman says.

Contact NCLC: (212) 840-1801, www.kapow.org.