Newt Gingrich, a man who's vying to be the president of the U.S., thinks child labor laws are stupid.
That's right. We've apparently reached the point in the Republican primary race where candidates are unafraid to bash child labor laws, regulations that in a normal world would be safe from such a severe attack from a political figure running for national office. But, now, children are up for grabs. Yes, children, since Gingrich believes child labor laws -- and as an extension of those, unions -- are denying 9- to 14-year-olds their right to pick up a bucket-and-mop after class to help support their families.
Gingrich's remarks were made during a Q & A session at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government on Nov. 18, in a response to a student's question about income inequality in the U.S., an issue that has gained national prominence with the advent of the Occupy Wall Street movement. In a diatribe that's almost comically offensive, Gingrich said the rising rate of income inequality in the U.S. is the result of truly stupid rules -- which he refers to as child laws -- that he said has added to U.S. poverty rate and denies children the ability to learn the value of a hard day's work.
Gingrich Says Poor Children Should Work as School Janitors
This is something that no liberal wants to deal with, said Gingrich. Core policies of protecting unionization and bureaucratization against children in the poorest neighborhoods, crippling them by putting them in schools that fail has done more to create income inequality in the United States than any other single policy.
Just what facts Gingrich has to support his astonishing claim is unclear. What's truly amazing is Gingrich made no mention of what could be done to actually improve those failing schools to engage lower-income students and put them on a path for educational success.
Instead, he dismissed the role of education and expounded on how poorer children need that extra push to learn how to make money at an early age and get any job that teaches you to show up on Monday, going so far as to suggest that schools in poor neighborhoods get rid of unionized janitors and employ students in their place. What's especially insulting is Gingrich specified poor kids are the ones who need to have the value of hard work hammered home, as though children of higher earners are born with an innate understanding of what's necessary for success.
However, this is Gingrich -- a man who has previously shown he's unafraid to say children from poor backgrounds are somehow less deserving than their more privileged counterparts. In 1994, just before becoming the Republican Speaker of the House, Gingrich publicly supported a proposal by the GOP that aimed to reduce the number of welfare recipients by placing the children of welfare mothers -- primarily, those with unconfirmed paternity and the children of women under age 18 born out of wedlock -- in orphanages.
When he was called out about the insensitivity of such a proposal, Gingrich famously responded that liberals exaggerated the horrors of orphanages and the foster care system, advising them to rent the 1938 Mickey Rooney film Boy's Town. Since, of course, a fictionalized account of a home for juvenile delinquents run by a kindly Spencer Tracy is apparently the closest Gingrich has ever been to an actual orphanage.
The GOP loves to accuse Democrats of inciting class warfare, but saying poor families should push their kids to get after-school jobs as early as elementary school instead of being a burden on the welfare system seems much more akin to class warfare than asking the wealthiest Americans to pay Clinton-era tax rates.
Child Laborers Likely to Underperform in School
No one is saying that kids don't benefit from learning the value of a dollar. But, studies have shown that working excessively during their formative years can have a life-lasting impact on children. For example, one February study from the University of Michigan found high school students who work more than 15 hours a week during the school year are more likely to struggle with subpar grades and lower college aspirations.
Child labor in the U.S. was commonplace until the Great Depression, when adults became so desperate for work that they were willing to toil for the same wages as children. President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, a hallmark of his New Deal legislation that established a minimum employment age of 14, with restrictions, as well as a federal minimum wage and overtime pay in certain jobs. Before the law's passage, children often worked long hours side-by-side with adults in mines, textile plants and factories for considerably less pay.
Even the federal law has been attacked by organizations such as Human Rights Watch, since it contains an exception for agricultural work. As a result, Human Rights Watch reports hundreds of thousands of children under age 18 work on fields for unrestricted hours from age 12 on.
The case for strong child labor laws is based on a simple belief that all children, no matter the circumstances they're born into, should have an equal chance at obtaining an education.
Gingrich, by tying rising income inequality to young children's inability to work for hire, is deflecting attention from the real issues -- such as corporate bailouts, overspending, tax loopholes and the subprime mortgage crisis -- and attempting to shoulder the burden of the economic crisis on poor families and their children. That is simply despicable.