In a well documented and highly controversial statement, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich called Child Labor Laws “truly stupid” while appearing at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in November.
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He then went on to make a proposal that children in poor schools and neighborhoods (like Public Housing projects) would benefit if they were given janitorial tasks in their schools – like cleaning toilets and mopping floors. If we were to make an assumption that such a plan would benefit these kids (and perhaps our economy long term), there might be a way to expand that idea, as described later in this commentary.
Having said that, let’s first start by examining the negatives – and ramifications – of the Gingrich plan. To begin with, it is covertly racist. Gingrich has focused mostly on single mothers living in the projects contending these parents do not provide a good “role model” for honest work. Actually, according to census data, in 2010 there were 9.9 million single mother households with children under age 18, representing about 85 percent of all single-parent families with children, to which Gingrich is referring. Clearly, many are minorities. However, the same data shows that over 65 percent of these single mothers are actually employed, and many more would do so – if jobs were available. They want to work; hopefully, the myth of the “Welfare Queen” died decades ago.
Aside, from an attack on long standing Child Labor laws, the Gingrich plan also is a subtle attack on capitalism. He suggests that his plan would reduce the need for janitors in the schools, thus saving money. That may be true, but it would also eliminate decent jobs for men and women trying to support families and earn a good (if not adequate) wage, with one that pays essentially nothing. As a corollary to this, it is also a subtle attack on unions, because most school janitors belong to one. This is the ultimate example of flawed capitalism – replace a good paying job with one that pays nothing. It is precisely the reason why Third World countries have now captured most of America’s manufacturing.
Similarly the Gingrich plan is also a condemnation of our education system. In showing the financial benefits of putting children to work cleaning toilets, Gingrich made the claim that these janitors “make more than teachers” (thus the greater savings). Actually the authenticity of that claim depends more on the school system, the seniority of teachers, and other such factors. But again, making the assumption that the Gingrich claim is true, it is more a condemnation of our national education system, and a product of the low pay we offer teachers, rather than an assumption that janitors are overpaid – and in that he is correct, because our level of education excellence internationally has been in decline for years.
Finally, I love the fact that Gingrich has selected janitorial work for these poor kids as their needed learning experience. So would Charles Dickens. Apparently, he feels he is then preparing them for (what he assumes) will be their life work. How arrogant! If such a plan were executed why not put them to work on a technology project, or green energy, or aerospace or…well you get the idea.
Now back to why his plan could be extended, if it indeed did have legitimate value. Well, if it is good for poor kids, it should also then be good for children of wealth too. Maybe (as I will suggest) even better. Since the affluent schools do not need to economize on janitorial services, perhaps the rich kids could go to the projects and do some cleaning there. Gingrich talks of “role models” – well there is a huge need for upper income kids to learn about how the poor really live. Do they ever really get exposed to skimping from paycheck to paycheck…keeping a beat up old car running…using food stamps…or feeling the fear that often runs through projects as decent folks try to scrape out a living and raise a family.
Nor do they know the complications and burdens the Gingrich “single mothers” face in maintaining stability in the home while trying to direct their kids in the right direction. They are overwhelmed with issues. And I certainly doubt that affluent kids ever realize the deep aspirations of these poor kids in their effort to pull themselves out of poverty, get a higher education, and make life-changing decisions to escape from their generational roots.
Yes, let’s expand the Gingrich plan to include wealthy families providing a “model” for educating their kids on the lives of the poor. And while we are at it, I would suggest we expand it to Gingrich himself. In the past decade or so, he has grown immeasurably wealthy with lobbying, book tours, and various shenanigans – so it might be useful for him to spend a day or two doing what he suggests the poor kids should be doing. Perhaps it would inject a bit of urgently needed humility into his thinking.