Selling Out the Kids

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...

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