Not One Less and Bring your Five-year-old to Work Day

For NSDA debaters transitioning from the China topic to federal K-12 funding and regulatory reform, consider the connection between child labor, education, and income inequality.

Steve Mariotti, the founder of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, tells the story of his first year teaching at a New York City high school. After success in retail, Mariotti switched to teaching a remedial class of inner-city students. Not surprisingly he had a hard time managing the classroom and was unable to teach effectively. As the end of the school year he asked his unhappy students if there was anything he had taught that they enjoyed or learned from.

Student answers focused on his discussion of business and how he had made money in retail. Mariotti was astonished students remembered details from a talk months earlier of his business buying wholesale, marketing and distribution, sales and income, etc. From there Mariotti shifted his classroom teaching to weaving course materials with practical instruction on Screen Shot 2017-05-22 at 8.36.33 AMstarting and running a business.

Through the following years Mariotti developed NFTE into a nationwide entrepreneurship program that has helped hundreds of thousands improve reading and math skills as they develop business enterprises. Here is a 2010 BBC News segment on Steve Mariotti and NFTE. Here is page on Ten9Eight, a documentary on teens competing. Here is trailer on YouTube.


Young people growing up in low-income households are motivated to find and follow paths out of poverty. Teachers can encourage studying in classes through high school and then college. But many struggle to see success down that path. Opportunities to earn income, even as elementary school students, can serve as learning experiences.

A number of education organizations offer opportunities for students to learn and earn. The Children’s Business Fair opens doors for students to become entrepreneurs and gain enterprise experience.

For over seventy years DECA has helped high school students develop practical business skills:

DECA prepares emerging leaders and  entrepreneurs for careers in marketing,  finance, hospitality and management  in high schools and colleges around  the globe.

Junior Achievement, another nonprofit, has long worked with high schools to help students gain business and enterprise experience.

Can you really teach entrepreneurship?,” (Washington Post, March 23, 2014) discusses both NFTE and JA programs:

“Many young people naturally have an entrepreneurial spirit, and many of them have great ideas, but what they don’t have are the technical skills,” Tricia Granata, executive director of the District’s Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, part of a national nonprofit, said. “We can teach them things to make sure that innate entrepreneurial spirit doesn’t get wasted.” 

Where should those skills be taught? Edward Grenier, president of Junior Achievement of Greater Washington, the local chapter of a national nonprofit organization that teaches financial literacy and entre­pre­neur­ship to students in kindergarten through high school, argued that entrepreneurship education must move beyond the classroom.

Learning practical business skills may seem too materialistic or distractions from mathematics, literature, civics, and history. But poverty is a distraction too, and early work opportunities can provide new motivations to pursue a solid education.

Screen Shot 2017-05-22 at 9.06.31 AMConsider the compelling movie of rural China, Not One Less (link to Amazon page). Like Horatio Alger novels based on true stories of city and rural poverty in the U.S., Not One Less gives a glimpse of real-world city and rural poverty in China.

Many young people prefer seeking opportunities in cities over poverty in the countryside. Economic freedom includes the freedom to move, and around the world hundreds of millions have moved to shantytowns surrounding fast-growing cities of the developing world. Edward Glaeser notes in his book Triumph of the City:

Urban poverty should be judged not relative to urban wealth but relative to rural poverty. The shantytowns of Rio de Janeiro may look terrible when compared to a prosperous Chicago suburb, but poverty rates in Rio are far lower than in Brazil’s rural northeast. The poor have no way to get rich quick, but they can choose between cities and the countryside, and many of them sensibly choose cities. (from excerpt in Scientific American, April 17, 2011)

The kid that runs away to the city in the movie Not One Less seems a lot like the kids who ran away to New York City in the mid to late 1800s as told in dozens of Horatio Alger novels. These entertaining and educational stories are available free online.

Though frowned upon as unrealistic by critics, it turns out many of Alger’s characters and events reflect true stories from personal interviews and reports in the New York Times. Some sixty thousand children lived and worked on the streets of New York selling newspapers, smashing (carrying) luggage, selling apples, delivering messages, working retail, and dozens of other low-paying tasks.

Nonprofit organizations provided inexpensive housing and many were sent to live safer lives in the country. Still, over time these young “street arabs” gained job skills to raise their incomes. Alger’s “rags to riches” stories emphasize honesty, thrift, and saving, are the keys to success, along with getting an education and working hard.

Stefan Kanfer in “Horatio Alger: The Moral of the Story,” (City Journal, Autumn, 2000) notes the popularity and influence of Alger’s novels:

Horatio Alger Jr. was the biggest American media star of his day. Though nineteenth-century best-seller lists were impressionistic—and the sale of 10,000 volumes was deemed a publishing triumph in those days—readers bought at least 200 million copies of his books…

Alger was at the forefront of a phenomenally successful experiment in social reform and improvement, a broad movement that inspired poor kids to take advantage of America’s social mobility and that led tens of thousands of New York’s post-Civil War juvenile delinquents into productive lives…

New York City then was as poor at the booming cities and shantytowns across China and the developing world today:

The New York City street urchin entered the national consciousness in those years. More than 60,000 neglected or abandoned kids ran unsupervised in the streets, partly because of the fallout from the tremendous wave of immigration from Ireland and continental Europe that was taking place. With immigration came a social pathology of maladjustment to the New World: families that fell apart; alcoholism and drug abuse (opium could be purchased across the counter); out-of-wedlock pregnancies and, inevitably, neglected children…

Horatio Alger writes, in the preface to Rufus and Rose: Or, The Fortunes of Rough and Ready:

… Several of the characters are drawn from life, and nearly all of the incidents are of actual occurrence. Indeed, the materials have been found so abundant that invention has played but a subordinate part.     The principal object proposed, in the preparation of these volumes, has been to show that the large class of street boys—numbering thousands in New York alone—furnishes material out of which good citizens may be made, if the right influences are brought to bear upon them. In every case, therefore, the Screen Shot 2017-05-22 at 12.01.15 PMauthor has led his hero, step by step, from vagabondage to a position of respectability; and, in so doing, has incurred the charge, in some quarters, of exaggeration. It can easily be shown, however, that he has fallen short of the truth, rather than exceeded it. In proof, the following extract from an article in a New York daily paper is submitted:—     “As a class, the newsboys of New York are worthy of more than common attention. The requirements of the trade naturally tend to develop activity both of mind and body, and, in looking over some historical facts, we find that many of our most conspicuous public men have commenced their careers as newsboys. Many of the principal offices of our city government and our chief police courts testify to the truth of this assertion. From the West we learn that many of the most enterprising journalists spring from the same stock.”

Poor children today in America’s cities and countrysides are better fed than street children of the late 1800s New York City. But in protecting children from employment, few in poor families have the opportunity to begin earning their way out of poverty until their teens or longer. Young people in middle-income and wealthy families on the other hand, participate in many organizations and activities that teach key life and job skills, from scouting to summer camps, speech and debate, volunteer work, and part-time business tasks for friends and relatives.

Low-income children today lack many of the employment and income opportunities of children much poorer “enjoyed” in the 1800s. Blocking young people from income-earning, skill-building activities frustrates their natural urge to get ahead, as well as cuts off an avenue for gaining additional income for their family. And nearly everyone in the world was poor just a century ago. Nearly all children worked to help their families.

Maybe it was unfair and inequitable that so many children were so poor in American cities in the late 1800s. And it’s similarly unfair that so many hundreds of millions of young people in rural China and India are still poor. So many around the world today live in similar poverty in the cities and countrysides of India, China, Indonesia, Brazil, the Middle East, and across Africa. (On the positive side, the World Bank reports poverty rates around the world to be the lowest ever: “World poverty rate to fall below 10% for the first time,” CNN, October 5, 2015)

Poverty is a problem, but so are regulations that prevent young people from working legally at jobs that are safe and within their abilities. Why have adults cleaning tables at restaurants, if children and young people could do the same work safely? We wouldn’t want children working ten, twelve or sixteen-hour days, as many did in the 1800s. But what about a four-hour day that comes with a free meal, after school at a nearby restaurant? Would that be the end of the world or the thin edge of the wedge to sending children back to dark and dangerous factories? Or might working in a neighborhood restaurant be both a learning and earning experience for young people?

Here is sample from an video featuring economist Hernando de Soto:

Poor people are migrating to the world’s cities in astounding numbers, embracing globalization despite the risks, and when the laws they encounter don’t work for them, they create their own.

The poor kid in Not One Less (trailer) wanders the city taking in sights and sounds until he get hungry. He tries taking some leftover food from a sidewalk restaurant, but is caught. The restaurant owner gives him some food and lets him clean tables. Later the kid is”rescued” and taken back to his village in a car full of reporters eager to tell his story. “How was life alone in the city?” they ask. He replies with a big smile: “The city was great!”

Another youth enterprise story from China is in this viral video of a five-year old eager to play (or work?) with his father’s machinery. (My nephew at the same age would have jumped at an opportunity to learn these skills.)

More on this story: “He’s an old hand at this! Chinese boy, 5, drives digger on building site” (Daily Mail, November, 2012)

Wang Shuhan, from Wuhan, in central China’s Hubei Province, is only five-years-old yet he’s already an expert at operating building site machinery.

The youngster was taught by his father Wang Xuebing, who videoed him calmly driving the digger around and using its scoop to pick up and move sand.

According to Xuebing he regularly brings his son to work with him and gradually the youngster grew interested in the machine he operated.

Xuebing said: ‘I sometimes explained to him the functions of the gears within the compartment, and when he was three he asked me to have a try. Amazingly he did it.’

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