Dickens and Gatsby on poor and working children
Like my friend Esther’s father Jamie, I am a Charles Dickens fan because of the novelist’s exquisite use of the English language. I recently realized that I should also read Dickens to understand today’s Turkey.
It was normal for children to work in early 19th century England. Dickens himself had to labor in a shoe-blacking factory when his father was put into a debtors’ prison. I was very surprised to find out, thanks to a research note published on Feb. 3 by Istanbul think tank Betam, that more than 50,000 Turkish children are suffering Dickens’ fate in early 21st century.
By looking at data from the 2012 Child Employment Survey, Betam researchers find that 292,000 children between the ages of six to 14 are involved in some kind of economic activity. While some work only a few hours per week, 47,000 put in more than 40 hours. In addition, 10,000 spend at least that much time working at home.
31,000 of these child laborers work more than the weekly legal ceiling of 45 hours. Most of them are underpaid. 17,000 make less than 500 Turkish Liras a month, less than minimum wage for those younger than 16 in 2012. But even if they were paid better, I would have still wondered how they managed to find time for their studies from working at least eight hours a day.
It turns out many don’t. Nearly one-fifth of the 292,000 working children do not attend school even though they are at the compulsory education age. This is particularly worrying, as another Betam research note, which was published on Jan. 29, finds a positive relationship between the level of education and poverty.
Even those who manage to go to school are likely to miss classes a lot, which could affect educational outcomes: Indeed, another Betam research note, which was published on Oct. 22, 2014, finds the fall in attendance as one of the main reasons bringing down Turkish students’ scores in international PISA exams.
A Betam working paper, which was published on Feb. 4, puts all of this into perspective: The authors demonstrate, to my knowledge for the first time, the low intergenerational mobility in income levels in Turkey. In other words, many of the two-thirds of Turkish children who are in severe material deprivation, as underlined in another Betam note, will end up being poor.
Further research will probably reveal education as one the primary causes of Turkey’s dismal performance in what economists call “the Great Gatsby curve,” which is simply a graph of inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, and earnings mobility (intergenerational earnings elasticity) among countries.
The name comes from the 1921 song by Van & Schenck, which was immortalized in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel: “The rich get richer, and the poor get children.” Actually, when you think about it, this is probably exactly what President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants, given his insistence on a (at least) three-child policy and the success of businessmen close to him.
Now that I brought him up, Erdoğan argued after the Soma murders that such “accidents” were normal, giving examples from 19th century Great Britain. It seems that comparing today’s Turkey to Dickensian England wasn’t such a crazy idea after all.