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Child labour India Mukesh Dungaria Bhil (6), spends most of his time with his school books when he is back home, even when he joins his parents when they work in the fields in Chota Udaipur, Gujarat, India.

(22 March 2017) Common social policy interventions can reduce child labor, but may also have unintended consequences. A new study called Effects of Public Policy on Child Labor summarizes the evidence on the relationship between policy interventions and child labor, highlights gaps in our understanding of this relationship, and discusses implications for program design. The paper was prepared by researchers at UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti, Carleton University, the  International Labour Organization, and the  World Bank.

Building on a literature review, the study examines how social protection programs and labor market policies affect child labor supply. “A few results stand out. Programs that reduce poverty and increase resilience in the face of economic shocks, such as cash transfer programs, tend to increase household investment in education and reduce reliance on children for income generation,” said Jacob de Hoop, Social Policy Specialist at UNICEF Innocenti and one of the new study’s authors.

Effects of programs that also increase the labor supply of adult household members are harder to predict. While these policies may increase household income, they may also increase children’s return to work. Adults who participate in public works programs, for instance, may rely on their children to take over some economic activities and household chores.

 According to de Hoop, “Most interventions can have offsetting effects on the complex intra-household decision making process that determines child labor supply. We therefore turned to the empirical literature to better understand the key pathways through which common policy interventions affect child labor and to aggregate lessons for program types.”

The study suggests that programs that may potentially increase child labor supply could be modified to avoid adverse effects. Rigorous evidence on potential modifications, such as making child labor a more salient issue for program beneficiaries, would be useful.

The authors further note that there are questions around the implications of policy-induced changes in child labor supply for child wellbeing. Some forms of work can be innocuous or beneficial to the child, while other forms may be harmful. Yet, few studies examine detrimental (or beneficial) aspects of child work, such as excessive working hours and exposure to work-related hazards.

A US Department of Labor funded research initiative at UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti aims to address some of these challenging outstanding questions, building on data collected as part of the Transfer Project in Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia.