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When tuneful nostalgia turns toxic: The old days weren’t good for everyone

From child labor to Jim Crow, states are reaching back to a time when inequality was the point

A return of child labor would hit hardest for low-income Americans, Curtis writes. Above, a boy works at the Welch Mining Company in West Virginia in 1908.
A return of child labor would hit hardest for low-income Americans, Curtis writes. Above, a boy works at the Welch Mining Company in West Virginia in 1908. (Lewis Hines/National Archives)

When songwriters Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager penned “Everything Old Is New Again” decades ago, I wonder if they could have imagined the jaunty, oft-covered tune would one day be turned into a blueprint for some very dangerous doings.

In 2023, turning to the past to find solutions for present challenges is taking the country down roads far darker than the song’s images of mellow trumpets, Bacardi cocktails and “dancin’ at your Long Island Jazz Age parties.”

Today, those glancing “backward when forward fails,” as a verse explains, have landed on child labor and Jim Crow — not exactly the good old days. And the citizens of every age whose lives could be turned upside down don’t feel like singing.

In Iowa and Minnesota, bills working their way through the system float an idea that was abandoned when even the cruelest among Americans couldn’t stomach policies that permitted children to toil in sweatshops and on assembly lines, stealing time from education that might have led to brighter futures. Some of the work could possibly endanger their lives.

But what’s a country to do when there is need — the need for low-income families to earn more money and for businesses to fill hiring goals? Something once thought repugnant can look pretty seductive if the alternative, trying to level the playing field with empathetic policy, is out of the question. So, why not reach back to a time when inequality was the point, tolerated by those who benefited and ignored by those who didn’t feel the pain?

And by jobs, I’m not talking about babysitting or scooping ice cream.

“Legislators in Iowa and Minnesota introduced bills in January to loosen child labor law regulations around age and workplace safety protections in some of the country’s most dangerous workplaces,” The Washington Post reported. “Minnesota’s bill would permit 16- and 17-year-olds to work construction jobs. The Iowa measure would allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work certain jobs in meatpacking plants.”

What could go wrong? Well, the Labor Department has been taking an interest, with investigations already looking into how much industry is or is not protecting younger workers.

Those actions haven’t stopped other states from exploring ways to loosen regulations.    

Such work will predictably affect poor Americans more than most. I hardly think wealthy kids would choose working in a meatpacking plant over an internship in a chosen field. Such internships or jobs with little or no pay have been nonstarters for a young person who has to help the family pay the bills.

And, in this country, with its persistent racial wealth gaps, minorities might no doubt disproportionately be the ones working longer hours in more dangerous jobs.

There’s nothing wrong with hard work. At a young age, my grandfather toiled on oyster boats off the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a job so tough that the move to the big city of Baltimore and the life of a longshoreman on the docks were an improvement. But in his time, he had fewer options. Young people today certainly do not, and shouldn’t be too broke to exercise them.

Considering America’s history, it’s no surprise that minorities might be the first to feel any rollback of rights. In Mississippi, separate and unequal seems the reason for changes in the court and criminal justice systems, changes that have Jim Crow written all over them.

“A white supermajority of the Mississippi House,” reported Mississippi Today, “voted after an intense, four-plus hour debate to create a separate court system and an expanded police force within the city of Jackson — the Blackest city in America — that would be appointed completely by white state officials.” State Rep. Edward Blackmon, a Democrat from Canton, Miss., referenced a state Constitution that removed voting rights from Black Mississippi citizens when he said during the debate, “This is just like the 1890 Constitution all over again. … We are doing exactly what they said they were doing back then: ‘Helping those people because they can’t govern themselves.’”

This is a state where districts are so gerrymandered that bills can sail through the legislature with the votes of its white GOP members, and not a single Democratic one. With the state’s history of citizens attending separate schools and churches, of living in separate neighborhoods, of treating its Black citizens as children who need to be controlled, the proposed bill looks less like a return to the past than business as usual.

That’s the problem with fond longing for a rosy past that never was. It ignores the reality of those who survived only because of the hope of a brighter, safer, more equitable future.

Thankfully, there have always been Americans who remember “then,” fighting to make America great “now.” It’s why attempts to roll back everything from LGBTQ rights to any fully accurate history taught to schoolchildren will meet resistance.

Still, I am reminded of a line in that song that I admit I will never hum so cluelessly again, a line that those kicking and screaming to halt progress hold onto with a tight grip: “And don’t throw the past away / You might need it some rainy day.”

For those for whom the past is bliss, it’s pouring.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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