Commentary: Gingrich's ideas on child labor are truly bad

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich addresses an audience in Newberry, South Carolina.
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich addresses an audience in Newberry, South Carolina. C. Aluka Berry/The State/MCT

Now that Newt Gingrich has brought it up, maybe it's time for a refresher course on the value of child labor laws. The Republican presidential candidate's claim that child labor laws are "truly stupid" rightly offends many people. But the bigger problem is that such a notion is intellectually feeble and flatulent. A guy who is notably smart and likes to publicly announce it with nearly every word and gesture should be wary of uttering such nonsense.

But then again, politics is full of absurdities - and Gingrich's further comments on poor children are an apt illustration.

For instance, when Gingrich said in Iowa recently that "really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works," he was pandering to a popular view (made real to many in bad TV shows and movies) that has little basis in reality.

In fact, even some Republicans disavowed the generalization and said U.S. Census data easily disprove the idea. Noted Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brookings Center on Children and Families and a former GOP congressional staff member: "Many [poor] mothers work," Haskins says. "If the economy were better, more would work, but they certainly have been setting an example."

According to the census, most poor children live in a household with at least one employed parent, and even among children in extreme poverty, nearly one in three lives with at least one working parent. In 2010 there were 9.9 million single mother households with children under age 18, representing about 85 percent of all single-parent families with children. More than 65 percent of those mothers were employed.

But even if Gingrich had gotten the facts right, it should still appall us that he thinks poor children as young as 10 should work 20 hours a week as janitors. The idea is nothing to cheer.

At the turn of the 20th century, it became appallingly evident that children were being exploited as laborers in this country - often working under dangerous circumstances. Gingrich's idea that kids work as school janitors doesn't improve upon that situation. School janitors don't just sweep floors. They operate machinery, work with electrical systems, and do all kinds of jobs that require skill, dexterity and judgment that young people don't have.

Those were exactly the kind of unsafe conditions - as well as exploitive low pay - that led Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, to begin a visible push to protect young people through child labor laws. By 1938, Franklin Delano Roosevelt pushed through the Fair Labor Standards Act that put limits on the use of child labor.

Unfortunately, Gingrich and a slew of other politicians and business people have now glamorized that heartbreaking past and are trying to make child labor laws the villain in getting people jobs and building a work ethic. Politicians in Maine enacted a law in May rolling back restrictions on the employment of minors, allowing those under 18 to work 24 hours a week - up from 20. Missouri lawmakers considered a bill to remove state restrictions on employing children under the age of 14 as well as increasing the hours children could work per day. U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, has publicly questioned the constitutionality of federal anti-child-labor laws.

But if people want to lift poor children out of poverty - as Gingrich claims he wants to do - loosening or ending child labor laws is exactly the wrong path to take. A good education is the documented way out of poverty. And studies are clear: The more students work, the lower their grades. Working also boosts dropout rates.

Those interested in the educational success and thus the life success of students have only to look at other countries whose students are outpacing us in that regard. Those students and their countries view school as a job. Students are discouraged from the kind of afterschool and weekend work U.S. teens do now.

The work ethic Gingrich and others should focus on is in the classroom. Working hard on class work to boost academic performance is what will lift poor children out of poverty so they can become productive tax-paying citizens. Unraveling child labor laws can only lead to the kind of child victimization this country rightly ditched a century ago.