This post appeared in The Answer Sheet column in The Washington Post on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011.
During Q and A after a recent speech at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, former speaker of the House and current Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich offered “a very simple model” that he has held “for years” to address income inequality. The first step is to do away with child labor laws, “which are truly stupid.” Then in high-poverty schools – schools that, in his words, are failing with teachers who are failing – fire unionized janitors (but retain one master janitor), and hire the kids as custodians. “The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools, they’d begin the process of rising.”
As could be predicted, his comment has been generating both incredulity and some support on the Internet. Mr. Gingrich is notorious for making off-the-cuff incendiary remarks, and even his supporters acknowledge his lack of discipline and recklessness. But he said he has held the model outlined in his comment for years, and his doctoral dissertation (in history from Tulane) was on the Belgian education system in the Congo during the last period of colonization, so it’s fair to assume that his ideas about education and work have been developing for some time. As unusual as his proposal is, it has woven through it several widely accepted ideas: The importance of so-called “soft” job skills (punctuality, cooperation, and the like), the value of involving students in their school, the benefits for young people of work and earning a wage. Every defender of Mr. Gingrich that I’ve read mentions the value of their first job. It could be that Mr. Gingrich is expressing these ideas in a provocative fashion to catch our attention, to stir things up – something he famously likes to do.
Given Newt Gingrich’s identity as a big thinker – “a pyrotechnician of ideas,” as The Economist recently put it – and given his rising status in the GOP presidential primary, we need to take his proposal seriously as reflecting the way he thinks about poverty, school, and work. We need to consider his proposal as well for it reflects assumptions about poor people and economic mobility that are in the air.
Let’s begin with the proposal’s core idea – repealing child labor laws and hiring students as custodians – for if it is meant to shock us into fresh thinking, then we need to see where that thinking leads us. Mr. Gingrich doesn’t limit his proposal to one level of schooling, so it seems to apply to elementary, middle, and high school. This means that children would be handling disinfectants and cleaning agents and other toxic chemicals, be regularly exposed to unsanitary conditions, and be doing some tasks that are physically demanding. We are not simply talking here about tidying up classrooms, for, except for a supervising janitor, there will be no one else but children to clean bathrooms, and the nurse’s office, and vomit in the hallway. Child labor laws were enacted to protect children from such work.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that society did decide to sanction custodial labor for children, which would allow us to consider the goal of the proposal: the development of soft job skills leading to a rise up the ladder of economic mobility. Soft job skills are important, to be sure, but most analysts across the ideological spectrum studying the future of work also emphasize the need for literacy and numeracy, computer skill, and some sort of specialized training. The punctual nurse or mechanic who can’t calculate ratios won’t be on the job for long. Mr. Gingrich doesn’t say anything about improving the academic programs of schools in poor communities. Remember, his proposal was in response to a question about solving economic inequality, and he seems to put all his eggs in the soft skills basket.
The job-specific knowledge the children would develop would equip them for entry-level custodial work – work not known for its mobility – and Mr. Gingrich’s proposal would decimate one category of that work, the school custodian. So rather than mobility, we would most likely see more rather than fewer young people stuck in low-skilled, low wage jobs.
There’s one more counter-productive element to this proposal. Many of the school custodians Mr. Gingrich targets live in the communities in which they work, or in similar communities. The loss of their jobs would increase unemployment in working-class communities, and thus increase the threats of poverty Mr. Gingrich is trying to alleviate. Janitors’ kids would make a few bucks, while their parents would have the economic rug pulled out from under them.
Essential to the discipline of history is understanding events in their historical context (like the passing of child labor laws) and understanding the way a single action (like the elimination of a category of workers) can have multiple social and economic effects. Mr. Gingrich touts his bona fides as an historian, but his proposal – even if meant to provoke – reveals a terribly limited historical sensibility.
There is a further problem with Mr. Gingrich’s thinking, the logical error of overgeneralization, in this case assuming that all members of a particular group like poor children share the same characteristics. Sadly, this assumption is not at all specific to Mr. Gingrich’s proposal, but is widespread, one of those troubling ideas in the air.
The fact is that people at the lower end of the income distribution hold a wide variety of attitudes toward work and education and about the work ethic and economic mobility. And there is a long line of social science research that demonstrates that working-class and poor people tend to espouse so-called middle class values about education and work. Of course poverty is destructive; some poor families are torn apart. Some kids grow up in chaos, lost and angry, and turn to the streets. But these are segments of a varied population. And it needs to be said that such variability exists across class lines; I’ve taught a fair number of students from middle-class and affluent backgrounds who could benefit from an infusion of the work ethic Mr. Gingrich champions.
We have a shameful history in the United States – a country that prides itself on its spirit of egalitarianism – of painting poor people with a single brush stroke and then offering an equally one dimensional solution to their problems. This tendency has led to some damaging social and educational policies, like channeling the children of poor families into low-tier vocational education. It is worth pondering that the job category Mr. Gingrich targets is custodial work. Of course, he gets to undercut a union in the process – a plus in this campaign season – but why custodial labor rather than having the children help out in the office, or using older kids to tutor or coach younger ones, or creating the conditions for students to develop their burgeoning computer skills in service of the school? Custodial work is honorable labor and requires knowledge and skill, but it is physical work low on the Department of Labor’s Standard Occupational Classification System. What category of work in the school would middle- and upper-class parents who are in agreement with Mr. Gingrich choose for their children?
Mr. Gingrich sparked outrage over his dismissal of child labor laws, and he also got some support for the common sense notion that work is beneficial for young people. Without dismissing the significance of this back-and-forth, I think it misses the wider sweep of issues worth considering in Mr. Gingrich’s proposal. There is the revelation of Mr. Gingrich’s simplistic, not just reckless, thinking – at least on topics like this one. There is the issue of the way the poor get represented in contemporary political discourse. There are the twin issues of education and work and who receives what kind of education for what kind of work. If Mr. Gingrich gets us to think carefully about these issues, then maybe he succeeded after all – though not in the way he intended.