Gingrich's really poor idea for 'really poor children'

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has been castigated on the opinion pages for declaring that child labor laws "are truly stupid" and for suggesting that poor children be hired to clean the bathrooms of their schools in order to teach a work ethic they can't possibly learn at home because nobody there has a job.

"Really poor children," he said at an Iowa fundraiser, "in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working, and have nobody around them who works. So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. … They have no habit of 'I do this and you give me cash,' unless it's illegal."

Mr. Gingrich tried to tone down his remarks by saying that these junior janitor positions would be reserved for children in really poor neighborhoods and public housing projects, presumably like the one in which Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor lived as a child.

Among Republican voters, the former House speaker is now riding atop both the national polls and the polls in early primary states, such as Iowa, South Carolina and Florida, after Herman Cain — who was accused of cheating on his wife and sexually harassing female underlings — was forced to drop out of the race.

It is good to know where the lines of civilized behavior are drawn in these confusing times: Abusing women is out. Exploiting the most vulnerable among us — poor children — is in.

But it was Donald Trump, inspired by Mr. Gingrich's remarks to create a junior "Apprentice" show for poor children, who said that Mr. Gingrich was simply saying what everyone believes.

"It wasn't, maybe, politically correct," Mr. Trump told the "Today" show, "but it happens to be the truth."

Mr. Trump plans to host a Republican candidate debate Dec. 27, during which he will ask the questions. It will be interesting to see if he presses Mr. Gingrich on this point or simply praises him for his courageous speech.

What Mr. Gingrich said about poor children — most of whom, in fact, live with at least one adult who has a job, according to census data — is appallingly ignorant. But this is, after all, the man who suggested in 1994 that the children of the poor might be put in orphanages as a way to deal with welfare. It is simple to write him off as a fool and a lout.

It is far more ridiculous that Mr. Trump, another thoughtful student of life among the poor, seems to feel Mr. Gingrich is speaking for everybody.

Add this burden of presumptions and prejudices to the ones the poor already shoulder: They are inattentive or undisciplined parents with no skills or values to teach their children. They can't care for their kids they way we can, they don't love their kids the way we do. They have no control over their behavior and no vision for their future. Not like us.

This idea that the poor are content to live as they do at the expense of the rest of us is a stubborn one. As if someone would choose to raise a family in poverty.

But what might be worse is that men like Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Trump, along with too many of the rich and powerful people they speak for, have already given up on those children — and think that most of the rest of us should, too. They already have doomed them to drugs and crime and early pregnancy and single-motherhood and poverty. They have written them off.

I submit that young people are not born knowing how to be reliable members of the workforce. It is a skill and a discipline that needs to be taught — to rich kids and poor ones. Its absence is not necessarily the result of family pathology, as Mr. Gingrich is suggesting.

The maturity to be a productive member of the economy doesn't arrive with the first paycheck. It takes time, and it goes better if there is a wise and caring adult on board — parent, teacher or employer.

But that is too simple an answer.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. Her email is susan.reimer@baltsun.com.

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