This essay is based on extensive fieldwork with marginalized children and other working children in Rio de Janeiro, conducted in two favelas and on the streets of four different neighborhoods. Specifically, my research focused on how particular children try to earn a living on the streets by working, begging, or stealing, and why they label the whole range of such activities as “work.” In examining the various kinds of labor the children engage in as they try to make a living in Rio’s destructured, largely informal economy, I use “child street labor” to refer to these varied forms of informal, often illicit or illegal work performed by such children. My analysis uncovers multiple levels in which this child street labor is intertwined with other forms of labor and also with informality, illegality, and even crime. Through examining the kinds of labor engaged in by poor children in Brazil, I argue that they can be seen as a reflection of and a commentary on the meanings of formal and informal labor in Brazil, as well as on some of the changes currently observed in the nature of labor worldwide. Further, this kind of child work blurs some of the most basic distinctions in sociological and political-economic thought on labor: the distinction between what counts as labor and what doesn’t, between productive and nonproductive labor, and between legal and illegal labor.

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