Off to the work house

When Republican presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich proposed abolishing child labor laws so that poor children could learn a work ethic by scrubbing school toilets and mopping hallways, his audience cheered. I would guess there were few poor children in attendance. Maybe there were former poor children who applauded because they worked their way out of poverty and resent others who survive on welfare programs. This is not the only option for dealing with poor children Mr. Gingrich has proposed. He has also suggested that the children of welfare recipients be taken away from their parents and placed in orphanages.

It seems odd to me that on one hand we collect money and toys for Christmas giving to those who are less fortunate than we are and on the other hand applaud rhetoric that blames the poor for being poor and characterizes them as lazy, stupid, and unwilling to work. I have a hard time reconciling the idea of putting poor children in orphanages as consistent with any kind of family values.

The stereotype of the poor as lazy and unwilling to work is certainly reinforced by people who are poor and unwilling to work. Such individuals do exist. The media is always quick to print stories like the one I read last week about the couple who scammed the system and lived in a luxury home while collecting hundreds of thousands in assistance. They have been caught and are facing felony charges. The media, however, rarely makes a big deal about the thousands of families who follow all the rules and still struggle to feed and house their families. Rarely do those who fall through the cracks make the headlines. While we self-righteously point to the “welfare queens” who supposedly have babies just to get government payments, the truth is that two-thirds of all single mothers work, sometimes at more than one job. They work while also caring for their children, often alone. It is not true that most of the poor do not know how to work.

The idea that schools should help children learn the value of work is not necessarily a bad one. To target that idea exclusively to those kids whose parents receive food stamps or those who qualify for school lunches seems more like a punishment for being poor than a concern for teaching about work. What upper income child knows how to clean a bathroom? Do children who grow up in homes where the mothers of poor children work as housekeepers and nannies know how to work? Do all middle class children have summer jobs, deliver papers, do laundry? Do wealthy children with trust accounts accumulating interest without any effort on their part understand the value of work? Would you think it a good thing if your child were required to clean the toilets or push a mop in exchange for learning to read and count while others participated in after school activities and sports?

Requiring only poor children to have menial jobs smells like something out of a Dickens novel and class warfare. It could result in children being singled out and discriminated against for being poor. Will they have to sweep floors or wash dishes instead of going to the library or doing their homework? Will they give up music class, skip recess or stay after school? Will scrubbing a dirty sink instill pride in work or make them hate school?

Mr. Gingrich’s idea of teaching children how to work is a good one. All children should be required to do age-appropriate work and learn the skills needed to hold a job. All kids should learn to do useful things. They should learn to do things with their hands as well as their minds. My experience as a parent is that young ones want to feel like they are doing something that is helpful and useful. Mr Gingrich’s idea might work if it were applied to all kids regardless of their parents’ income.

Copyright © 2011 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains