Commentary: Gingrich should learn that the poor already work hard

The Myrtle Beach SunJanuary 20, 2012 

I wish Newt Gingrich had met Kendra Keel.

Gingrich, the Republican presidential candidate who has shot up in state polls before Saturday’s crucial S.C. primary, and Keel, a founding member of the Myrtle Beach group Mothers Against Violence, both attended Monday’s King Day breakfast and community awards banquet.

Gingrich gave a subdued, humble speech about King that morning.

I wished he and Keel had crossed paths, particularly because of a high-profile exchange Gingrich had at the debate later that night with Fox News commentator Juan Williams.

Gingrich proudly and defiantly defended his position about paying poor kids to do janitorial work to instill in them a work ethic. It’s a sentiment built upon one of his early claims that many or most poor kids don’t have role models who consistently work. He’s also said he wanted to tell black people to demand paychecks instead of food stamps.

The crowd gave him a standing ovation.

Had Gingrich met Keel, he would have learned that she is as determined as he is.

He would have learned that when she was raising young children she’d sometimes work from 8 a.m. to midnight at multiple jobs to stay off public assistance and the scorn that comes with it, and that she lived with the father of her children for 23 years, a man who worked jobs that took him out of town for days at a time.

He would have learned that one of her sons, Earvin Graham, had started cooking to help his mother when he was 5 years old – and cleaning the refrigerator and making cakes from scratch.

At the age of 7, Graham cooked a full meal and served it to his tired mother after she got home from work.

Keel modeled hard work by working hard, and still at the age of 23, Graham was dead from a bullet to the back of his head during a drug dispute.

He was the second son she lost to violence. She also raised a daughter, a proud member of the U.S. military, and a son who graduated from college.

Her children watched Keel and their father toil long, hard hours to keep the family together, to make ends meet.

People on the economic knife’s edge know about hard work. They must work or slowly die.

Middle-class and better-off children have chores and take on part-time jobs for spending money.

Poorer children are often forced to take on adult responsibilities.

Gingrich could have also learned that from the thousands of women who get on buses at 5 a.m. in Williamsburg and other counties, ride to Myrtle Beach, clean hotel rooms to make ends meet, then ride home well past the bedtime that most kids in middle-class and richer households take for granted, the type of stability that provides them untold advantages.

Corporate executives sometimes brag that they put in 60-hour weeks, and that’s why they deserve compensation that is hundreds of times that of the average American worker.

There are plenty of poor people who put in similarly long hours – and still need public assistance to help fill their stomachs. The working poor constitute roughly a third of those who receive cash welfare payments.

The difference is that when your salary is large, it is easier to arrange quality child care and provide other things that make it less damaging to have parents spending so much time away from their young children.

When you are on the economic edge, the options are limited.

That’s why Martin Luther King Jr. was pushing so hard near the end of his life for a guaranteed living wage for every family, because he understood how vital it was for the stability of families.

One of the under-reported realities of the economic changes that have taken place over the past few decades is that the stagnant growth in wages for the average American has made it more necessary for parents to spend less time with their children during critical periods. That reality has begun to affect many in the middle-class as well.

That’s not just a matter of fairness; it goes to the heart of the struggles we’ve seen in the educational and criminal justice systems.

A strong work ethic is critically important, a prerequisite for success, along with wise decision-making and the ability to delay gratification.

But it isn’t the only thing poor people need.

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