Gingrich, Poor Kids, and Trash

Newt Gingrich, though faltering, is the one candidate for the Republican nomination that embodies the establishment GOP. Last November he made a bold choice to endorse and encourage child labor – he wanted poor kids to takeover the jobs of unionized janitors. This is not a smear campaign on Newt, he stands by the statement and it was no gaff. On Wednesday, Gingrich encountered a former child janitor, in the exchange he not only upheld his previous ideas, but threw in a cold dismissal of real world class differences.

The Atlantic does a nice job of covering what is wrong with the idea of child janitors here. In case it isn’t obvious, the reasons for rejecting his notion are many: it would mean adding low wage kids to an already tough job market, asking kids to handle noxious chemicals and to do dangerous repairs (labor stats put it as the 7th most injury prone job), disrespecting janitors and the level of difficulty of their job, and completely ignoring the social dynamic of creating a “bottom rung” mentality in school system that strive hard to be sure the poor kids are treated as well as the wealthy.

These ideas have gained some favor among his base – which responded enthusiastically in some places to the repeal of child labor laws – laws he called “truly stupid”.It may not have felt quite like the same ingenious idea when he was confronted with a former child janitor. Hector Cendejas made Newt accountable for the callous way  he endorsed child labor. He explained that he was a janitor at his private high school and felt embarrassment over the obvious economic and class differences that created in his social world. He also made a point that his mom was working hard and he did it to help her.

Newt responds by sharing an anecdote about his daughters being “janitors” at their church and learning a good lesson in economics. Cendejas points out the fact that they come from a wealthy family, implying that for financially secure families, such exercises are not the same as poor kids actually being depended upon to make a difference in someone’s bottom line. One family has a choice, the other would be chosen due to their likelihood to be forced into exploitative practices. The quotes from RawStory:

“But they (Gingrich’s daughters) come from a wealthy family,” Cendejas pointed out.

“That’s not the point,” the candidate shrugged. “You and I just disagree.”

End of answer for Gingrich; he only seems to have that empathy thing going when it is in service to his election campaign (like he did here). Otherwise he shows a serious empathy deficit. He won’t even entertain the ideas of what conspicuously striated classes would do to an educational system that strives to create an atmosphere of equity among students.

Gingrich seems to think that there are geographic locations that are filled with only lazy people – no workers. When asked about the working poor, who are
working – by definition, he says “…I was talking about people who come out of areas and neighborhoods where they may not have that experience.”

In December he explained:

“Really poor children, in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works so they have no habit of showing up on Monday,” the Georgia Republican insisted. “They have no habit of staying all day, they have no habit of I do this and you give me cash, unless it is illegal.”

Wow. Such an unabashed distaste for an entire economic tier of society (once again) exposes Gingrich’s aim: he doesn’t want class warfare, just class acquiescence. He’d love to strip living wages and bargaining power away from workers where he can, and have those jobs go to children at a cut rate,. The convenient vehicle of work ethic justifies the ideology. Work ethic is a valid and noble value, but the “side-effects” of this particular initiative undermine the believability of this motivation.  The irony is that you could turn his words around and make a really similar statement about another class (and their neighborhoods):

“Really rich children, in really rich neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works so they have no habit of showing up on Monday, ” the plucky blogger said to make a point, “They have no habit of staying all day, they have no habit of I do this and you give me cash, unless it is illegal…or part of being privileged.”

Do I believe the above about all rich people? No, but Newt is serious about his idea. There is a grain of truth in either of the “poor” or “rich” quotes. In fact you can go to a housing project and see seemingly able bodied people with a lot lounge time on their hands, but you can also look at the Paris Hilton’s of the world and imagine her response when handed a mop. Matter of fact she did a reality show based on this very laughable concept. The truth is that there are very hard working rich and poor people, broad brushing either sector as lazy only reinforces polarizing caricatures.

If work ethic is the issue at hand and that value is to be instilled in our schools, lets give every kid “a job” that is suitable for a kid – like raising or lowering the flag, tending the garden, helping the teacher, or re-shelving library books. Most schools I’m familiar with already do this to some extent. Reinforce values like pride in your work, team building, personal responsibility, and build skills like problem solving and time management, all kids can benefit from these lessons. When money comes into the picture, everything changes – unless you can afford to pay all of the students something for their work. I can tell you right now that adding this into our education budget would prompt steam to come out of Gingrich’s ears.

It is hard to disguise the fact that Gingrich’s ideal America has a very large, very poor sector serving a very small, very wealthy sector. He is very conscious of the arguments he’s making and what trajectory the successful implementation of such programs indicate. From a progressive framework, his loyalty to the almighty dollar is antithetical to their empathy for kids – those in the poorest neighborhoods are already at a social disadvantage keeping their dignity intact at school. When dollars are king, humanity falls by the wayside.

Child labor laws (like all labor laws) were put in place for good reason. Children are easy to exploit, and making them pay for a situation they did not create is inherently unfair. Let’s work on employing and training their parents or guardians, or help them learn to break the cycle of poverty through life skills education and proper health maintenance (which means supporting healthy food accessibility, healthy food prep, drug and alcohol initiatives, and a culture of safety).

Kids work is play, let’s let kids be kids, even if they’re poor.

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