Months ago, Democrats – astonished by some of the Republican rhetoric about eliminating government regulation – joked that the next thing Republicans would propose would be repealing the child labor laws. This week, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich actually made that proposal, and he was being serious. He said that schools should save money by firing janitors and making the kids do the janitors' jobs.
Schools in Chicago and elsewhere have been lengthening the time students spend in class, in order to improve their educational performance. Newt thinks kids should spend less time studying in class and more time sweeping. If this proposal was coming from one of the other Republican candidates who have already lost credibility within their own party, it wouldn't be so newsworthy. But Newt is the latest candidate to surge in the polls as a possible challenger to Romney. He is being taken seriously largely because he actually has some experience in government, although people who remember how he behaved when he was in office are probably less likely to vote for him than people who didn't witness his antics.
Newt says that there is nothing wrong with a kid washing cars or selling newspapers to make a few bucks. I agree. I cut a neighbor's grass and shoveled snow and had a lemonade stand. But I did it in my free time – not when I was supposed to be in school. We had school janitors to mop the floors, clean up vomit, clean the toilets, pick up broken glass on the playground, balance on window ledges to wash the windows, and climb ladders to replace light bulbs. They did their jobs while I was in class. Sure, I occasionally washed the blackboards and clapped the chalkboard erasers. Other kids were playground assistants or hall monitors or bell-ringers or supply-room helpers. These were positions that were designed to teach us responsibility, and to give us a feeling of pride and involvement. We weren't just cheap labor brought in to bust the unions. Newt specifically attacked unionized janitors in his comments.
There are plenty of countries where kids still work instead of going to school. They shine shoes, sell gum, run errands, serve coffee, and mine minerals. What they don't do is get an education. They are too busy working to support themselves and their families. That's one of the big reasons we have child labor laws – to make sure kids get educated.
Another reason we have child labor laws is that when kids work, they get injured. They lose eyes and arms and lives – not shoveling snow or selling greeting cards door-to-door – but working on farms and in restaurants and factories, and falling off ladders and window ledges. Kids don't have a lot of power to insist on safe working conditions. It's hard for them to tell an adult supervisor that they don't think they have been given the proper equipment or training. Kids just do what they are told, unlike unionized adult workers.
Newt is actually proposing that adults be fired and replaced by lower paid kids. Newt talks as if this would be good for kids in poor neighborhoods. But will those neighborhoods be better off if adults' jobs are converted to kids' jobs, with lower pay? This degradation of income is one of the things that child labor laws were enacted to prevent. Newt must know this. He used to be a history teacher.
Our country has been attacked a few times, but Newt is one of very few people who can boast that he actually shut down the U.S. government, back when he was in Congress. He rose to power because of his “contract for America,” which was so destructive that it became knows as his “contract on America.” He is chiefly remembered as a guy who told his wife while she was in the hospital for cancer that he was leaving her for another women with whom he was having an affair. When he tells us that our kids should work instead of study in school, I have to wonder why anyone, even the most regressive Republican, would think it was a proposal that should be considered or that he is a candidate who deserved anyone's support.