Gingrich and “Contract on America” Take 2 – With a Dash of Child Labor

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By Rowan Wolf

Newt Gingrich is trying to present himself as a new Newt, a Newt 2.0 so to speak. Unfortunately, he seems to be more of a Newt 1.01. So too his 21st Century Contract with America seems much like the 1994 Contract. Certainly the ideology has not changed, but it has gotten even meaner – particularly with the poor. Now he has thrown child labor into the mix.

Yes Gingrich has shifted his position on the poverty and the poor further to the right than he was in 1994. Then he was making the culture of poverty argument, and the result was a policy about face. The country went from a war on poverty to a war on the poor. “Welfare Reform – under the auspices of The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 (PRWOA) was passed into law.

The primary goal of welfare reform was to decrease the number of people receiving aid – not helping people get out of poverty. Like Newt’s “new” ideas his “new” contract wants work for benefits even though that is already part of existing welfare policy. This policy is largely based upon the same wrong-headed idea that the poor don’t have a work ethic, and therefore perpetuate their own poverty. What welfare reform did was to deepen the level of poverty while lessening access to aid.

Welfare reform was then “updated” under George W. Bush by increasing both work requirements and making punishment for out-of-wedlock births even more stringent. This of course included throwing even more government monies into abstinence programs – an approach that was already a proven failure.

At a forum on November 17th at the Kennedy School of Government, Newt sprang his new component of pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps approach replete with the Republicon coding that has become ingrained in the amerikan psyche. Namely, he wants to put poor children to work.

Newt Gingrich:”Child labor laws are stupid”


(My transcript of this soundbite at end of article)

Gingrich claims that it is bureaucracy and unions that are keeping the next generation embedded in poverty. His solution is to fire the union janitors in the schools and replace them with the poorest children under the supervision of a “Master” Janitor. I am hoping that is just a poor choice of wording. The “poorest neighborhoods” are essentially code for non-white neighborhoods. His plan would take children – apparently starting in grade school – out of their classes for 20 hours a week so they can develop a “work ethic” and earn some money. Since Newt sees this as a cost saving measure for the schools, one presumes that these children are not going to making union wage – or even minimum wage – and likely benefits and workers compensation are not part of the plan either.

Of course, those union janitors would be thrown out into an economy that is already short of jobs, and hence will join the ranks of the unemployed, but Newt is going to break the cycle of the “culture of poverty” by reinstitutionalizing child labor.

It seems that we have gone past the time of outrage over the use of child labor globally (Nike, Kathy Lee, etc). I vaguely recall that child labor has been used because children’s labor is cheaper than adult labor; that child labor actually displaces adult labor; that children who are working pretty much seal their fate as uneducated (or undereducated) adult laborers. Hence; encouraging child labor likely drives the next generation deeper into poverty.

A core tenet of the culture of poverty theory is that children learn dependence and non-work habits from their parents and other adults. Therefore, if one wanted to break the cycle of poverty, it would make sense to get adults employed and children the best education available. It would make sense to attract businesses and manufacturing into the proximity of the poorest neighborhoods, and engage in training programs to get parents (and even teens) skilled to fill those positions. I find it hard to believe that taking kids out of class for 20 hours a week is going to prepare them to compete in the job market. After all, kids are only in school for about 30 hours a week. To turn the poorest kids into janitors plan would have them laboring 20 hours and in classes about 10 hours. That sure sounds like a poor plan to break the cycle of poverty.

So we have the anti-union slant, but Newt also throws in bureaucratization. Now that can mean a lot of things, but given that one of the embraced tenets of the entire Republican field is to “shrink government” (until it can be drowned in a bath tub as Grover Norquist has declared) it probably means “privitization.” So one presumes that the schools – or at least the administration of the schools – is going to pass into the hands of private corporations.

It is clear that Gingrich is trying to say that it is a lack of work ethic – not other structural barriers – that is responsible to poverty. So if we start these “poorest of the poor” kids working early then inequality will disappear. Further, that we all have a God given right to be exploited and believe that is the path to happiness.

It is mind boggling how even someone as privileged as Gingrich could actually believe this.

Transcript of Gingrich speaking at Kennedy School of Government 11/17/2011

Core policies of protecting unionization and bureaucratization against children in the poorest of neighborhoods crippling them by putting them in schools that fail has done more to create income inequality than any other single policy.

It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children in, first of all, in child laws, which are truly stupid. OK you say to someone “You shouldn’t go to work before you’re 14, 16 years of age.” Fine. You’re totally poor. You’re in a a school that is failing with a teacher that is failing.

I tried for years have had a very simple model. Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools, they’d begin the process of rising.

Get any job that teaches you to show up on Monday. Get any job that teaches you to stay all day even if you are having a fight with your girl friend. And the whole process of making work worthwhile is central. We have cut (and this is a huge and you have put your finger on it) I take seriously that every American of every ethnic background in every neighborhood has a right to pursue happiness and that was endowed by their creator.

You’re going to see from me extraordinarily radical proposals to fundamentally change the culture of poverty in America. And to give people a chance to rise very rapidly.

Reports document the impact of US welfare reform. Alan Whyte. WSWS. 3/14/2001.

CNN: 1994, Gingrich’s ‘Contract with America’ – YouTube video

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