GOP hopeful wants to instill work ethic in poor children by putting them to work — as janitors
Poor kids, especially in projects and inner city neighborhoods, should be hired as part-time janitors for neighborhood schools.
So was the declaration of Republican presidential frontrunner Newt Gingrich in brainstorming recently about ways to lessen unemployment and economic decline in urban areas.
Clarifying remarks he made last month in a speech at Harvard, he said redesigning child labor laws to allow 14- and-15-year-olds to work would help curb the lack of a work ethic in many poor neighborhoods. It would also allow schools to give such mid-teens part-time jobs as janitors or janitorial assistants.
Gingrich said that successful people he knows started work early by doing small jobs like babysitting and shoveling snow.
Such simple answers to complex questions have some likening Gingrich to the Grinch who stole Christmas. His comments have gained weight as he has risen in the polls in the last two weeks ahead of Republican frontrunner for the presidential nomination Mitt Romney.
Speaking with the pomp and authority of a child study expert, Gingrich diagnosed the unemployment problems in inner cities as a kind of self-perpetuating cycle of lack of work leading to more lack of work and more Americans being crippled by a merry-go-round of poor work ethic.
Sizing up the problem as such, Gingrich immediately offered his own remedy for the country. His solution — put lazy and helpless inner city youth to work. It was a solution, some experts say harkened back to the days when the stereotype of welfare queens refusing husbands, was used by the Ronald Reagan campaign in 1980 to help frighten the country into ultimately implementing workfare reform as an antidote to welfare, ironically, during the Clinton Administration.
This time Gingrich has thrown his own form of dynamite into the presidential race igniting controversy and accusations against him of race baiting. Catching stiff flak, Gingrich backpedaled a bit to say he obviously was not talking about the “working poor,” but rather households where there is no work.
“They have no money. No habit of work,” the politician said.”[They have] No concept of working and nobody around them who works. ‘No concept of I do this and you give me cash,’ unless it’s illegal.”
What was left unsaid, according to critics, was that Gingrich was speaking about Black and Hispanics who, more than any other groups, fit the profile of the “very poor” inner city kids Gingrich described.
“What kind of nonsense is this?” exclaimed City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. “How dare anybody make such a suggestion. It’s ridiculous that a white candidate for president would try to put people in certain classes based on economic background saying they lack work ethic.
“I was born in public housing — Richard Allen projects. These were low-income people. But I have a brother with a Ph.D. My sister and I have master’s degrees. My oldest sister is a computer expert. We have so many exceptions of poor people. This Thursday (Dec. 15) I will be honoring the original Richard Allen Committee — a group of success stories [out of Richard Allen]. They have all given back.”
Things didn’t improve after Blackwell’s retort as the floodgates of criticism opened.
“I think there is a clear ‘dog whistle’ of racial signaling, when he talks of inner city poor,” said Daniel Cook, associate professor of Childhood Studies at Rutgers–Camden in South Jersey. “Statistically he’s referring to families and children of color.”
Charles Gallagher, chairman of the sociology department at LaSalle University, agreed, saying Gingrich was using “coded” language for Blacks and Latinos when he spoke of the “very poor,” “inner city poor” and children “in projects.”
What Gingrich also did not say outright was that if his plan to use youth as janitors in schools were adopted, it would be a matter of throwing a single brick through two windows at the same time, windows that were institutions that have long been targets of conservatives — unions as well as child labor laws.
While sidestepping labor laws, Gingrich admitted that the proposal would allow the reduction of unionized school janitorial unions and their members.
“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,” said the former U.S. Speaker of House of Representatives.
Gingrich has drawn criticism in the past from some Democrats and pundits for contending that U.S. child labor laws are “truly stupid” and should be “rejiggered” to allow such things as children janitors in schools.
There are Blacks who agree with Gingrich’s prescription. Ward Connerly, political activist, businessman and former University of California Regent, based in California, is one of them. Connerly’s postion is not surprising since, in the past, he has opposed racial preferences and quotas.
“His [Gingrich’s] observations are quite valid ...,” said Connerly last week. “America is in decline not just budget-wise … but the infrastructure [of our families and our culture] is deteriorating. There are enormous problems in the urban core. There needs to be the right kind of tutelage to lead productive lives.”
He said Gingrich’s suggestion that “really poor” kids lack work ethic and could profit from school janitorial jobs may help remediate the situation. According to Connerly, some young Blacks feel that doing the things required to hold down a mainstream job is “acting white.”
“This is a problem with a lot of our kids,” said Connerly. “But not just our kids [lack work ethics]. White kids too. These kids are low income and don’t see parents going to work or coming home from the job. … There is a need for love here.”
Critics like Al Sharpton, who recently did a tour through inner city schools with Gingrich [at the behest of President Obama in an effort to heighten awareness of the problem plagued education system] agreed. He said Gingrich’s words sounded suspiciously similar to the coded language used to describe felon Willie Horton during the campaign of George H.W. Bush for presidency. He said it was also similar to the use of the “welfare queen” image by Reagan and Richard Nixon in their presidential campaigns. Now the target seems to be children as potential scapegoats for the current economic situation, he said.
“This is where we are getting into this cheap kind of race-baiting kind of poor,” Sharpton said in a radio interview. “[He is talking about] criminal kind of behavior and we need to call it out.”
“He knows better,” said Sharpton.
He said this should be especially so following Gingrich’s inner city tour that included Philadelphia. “He knows these kids have parents that work and that are not making money illegally.”
According to Charles Gallagher, in the sociology department at LaSalle, “Gingrich is way off with this. He is trying to score points with white Americans that Black culture is a culture of poverty that the children learn about helplessness and laziness because their parents don’t work. This is amazing coming from a man who is supposed to know history.
“It’s not laziness,” said Gallagher, “but the lack of opportunity. The structure no longer exists for jobs based on manual labor [or entry level skills]. It’s disingenuous looking at 11- and 12-year-olds and say ‘Get a job.’”
Gallagher said Gingrich failed to mention discrimination, “which is very much a part of this.”
Adds Gallagher: “He doesn’t look at the structural conditions that create poverty. It’s unbelievable that he would stoop so low as to blame 14- and 15-year-olds for the recession we’re in.”
Daniel Cook, a sociologist at Rutgers-Camden said he disagreed with Gingrich’s argument that having or not having parents was key to youths having work ethics.
“Anybody who knows anything about children from less economically advantaged backgrounds, know they live in situations [in which they have to practically raise their brothers and sisters and provide unpaid care]. They are at different ages, and they have to be incredibly responsible, helping siblings with clothing, eating, getting to school. It’s not paid labor but it’s an incredible amount of responsibility. The picture he paints because of class divisions is incorrect.”
LaSalle University’s Gallagher said the focus of Gingrich’s argument — tying the minority families to their economic level — is reminiscent of the work of Daniel Patrick Moynihan who blamed young Black women who got pregnant without looking for marriage as a reason for the ills in Black upward mobility.
Some have said that Gingrich’s comments are another effort to pin Black and Hispanic economic levels on their own family backgrounds.
Regardless, some local political leaders agree with City Councilman Curtis Jones, who argued recently that Gingrich’s comments would be helpful to President Obama campaign.
“It’s the best thing that could have happened,” said Jones. “With Gingrich running it makes us see that whatever Obama did wrong, Gingrich proves that it could be a lot worse.