The Gingrich Child Labor Heresy

Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has caused some controversy by suggesting that children in poor neighborhoods should be put to work as soon as possible, perhaps as janitorial staff at the local school.  From a report at The Hill:

“Start with the following two facts,” Gingrich said Thursday at a campaign stop in Iowa.

“Really poor children 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,” Gingrich said.

“They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash’ unless it’s illegal.”

Gingrich said every successful person he knows started working at an early age in explaining his position that schools should hire poor children in their neighborhoods for part-time jobs as assistant librarians or assistant janitors.

“I come around to this question,” he said. “You have a very poor neighborhood. You have kids who are required under law to go to school. They have no money. They have no habit of work. What if you paid them part-time in the afternoon to sit at the clerical office and greet people when they come in? What if you paid them to work as the assistant librarian?”

“What if they became assistant janitors and their job was to mop the floor and clean the bathroom?” Gingrich added.

Judging from the general media reaction, this is supposed to be an example of Newt shooting himself in the foot by thinking out loud.  Whether you agree with his sentiments or not, it would be fair enough to judge that they’re too provocative for a presidential candidate, and might rub a lot of people the wrong way.  I’m not so sure, though.  Is he saying anything that poor parents – or for that matter affluent suburban parents – haven’t said to themselves?  Maybe they’ll appreciate the very candor that media elites are convinced will doom him.  There is a growing sense among people in every quarter of our society that we are drowning in our illusions.

What Gingrich has done here is commit a heresy against one of the most cherished modern illusions: measuring the wealth of society according to the length of childhood.  We’ve become obsessed with extending adolescence well into the third, and even fourth, decade of life.  A rising population of thirty-somethings are living with their parents.  ObamaCare officially designates 26-year-olds as “children” who can remain on their parents’ health plans.  Ubiquitous college educations, which take longer to complete at steadily rising expense, delay the beginning of professional careers.

Meanwhile, the modern concept of retirement places “Childhood, Act 2” at the end of life.  Decades of idyllic ease are expected, relying largely upon a Social Security system that originally envisioned only a few short years beyond the conclusion of productive working life.  This leaves an increasingly narrow window of working people, toiling between the end of a protracted secondary education and the beginning of their long retirements, to sustain everyone else.  America’s impending fiscal collapse is, in part, a result of life cycle collapse.  The lifespan of Americans grows longer, thanks to our astounding medical technology… but the lifespan of the American worker is shrinking.

We’re not very far removed from days when responsible adults were expected to take care of elderly parents, rather than 26-year-old “children.”  It also wasn’t that long ago when children in their early teen years were expected to work, either for wages or to maintain the household.  And yet, nothing seems more instantly repulsive than the notion of “child labor,” even though enlisting young people as assistant janitors in 21st-century America would bear absolutely no resemblance to the horrors of 19th-century exploitation.  Gingrich is talking about giving young people a chance to develop, and profit from, solid work habits in safe and controlled workplaces, not throwing them into sweat shops and coal mines.

It’s interesting to note how much of the “progressive” movement lives forever in the past.  Just as labor unions pretend they’re the last line of defense against robber barons who break up strikes with truncheons, the liberal establishment – which nourishes all forms of dependency as sources of power – teaches kids to think of work as an assault on their dignity, if not their lives.  This is infused into a great deal of the popular culture aimed at children, where predatory capitalists are reliable villains.  Is it any surprise that the same culture views the extension of carefree youth as an important yardstick of American wealth, whose compromise would be an unthinkable admission of weakness?

Gingrich touched on this during earlier heretical musings last month, as related by The Hill:

The comments from Gingrich echo the argument he first made in November, when he called child labor laws that might prevent the hiring of school children as janitors as “stupid.”

“This is something that no liberal wants to deal with,” Gingrich said at the time. “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.

“It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children in, first of all, child laws, which are truly stupid.”

Excessively candid?  Politically foolish?  Self-destructively provocative?  Perhaps.  But can you look at the output of the system he criticizes, and say honestly that you see no evidence whatsoever to back up his thesis?