Bold But Dopey

by Geraldo Rivera | Dec 09, 2011

"Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works. So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of 'I do this and you give me cash' unless it's illegal."     Newt Gingrich in Iowa, 12/1/11, defending earlier remarks at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard that 'truly stupid' child labor laws should be suspended to allow very young poor children to work.

It is doubtful that Newt Gingrich has ever spent quality time in a 'really poor', inner-city public housing project. He probably has more first-hand knowledge of the hallowed ground under Pickett's doomed Charge at Gettysburg in 1863 than he does about low-life in high-rise poverty in New York or Chicago in 2011. If he knew about the culture of poverty that Oscar Lewis called La Vida, Gingrich never would have proposed suspending child labor laws and putting ghetto public school students to work as junior janitors in Fifth or Sixth Grade. Like his earlier calls to bring back orphanages and to deny support to unmarried woman who have children while on welfare, this Gingrich proposal is crass and creepy.

The biggest challenge facing ghetto children is not finding examples of menial labor. If Speaker Gingrich wanted me to give him a tour of the projects on Manhattan's Lower East Side or in Harlem or the South Bronx, he could see how the single moms and grandmothers who run most of those households trudge off to work as nannies and maids and such every day.

Last year, according to the U.S. Census, of the 8.5 million households headed by single moms, over 65% had jobs, often more than one.

When in the 1990's I 'adopted' a junior high school class and promised to pay for their college educations if they would only graduate, many still dropped out because they had to work to help support their families. No, these children know about work. Even in this severe economic environment, they can usually score casual employment in McDonald's or the Garment Center. If he had real world urban experience, the former Speaker of the House would know that teaching poor boys a 'work habit' is less important than teaching them to be responsible. With or without a job, what they need to know about is how to be good parents.

"More than half of all black children live in single-parent households, a number that has doubled—doubled—since we were children."

When candidate Barack Obama said those words in his seminal Father's Day 2008 speech at the Apostolic Church of God in inner city Chicago, going where so precious few of our elected Latino or Black representatives dare to go, I started secretly hoping that he would be elected president. Our youngsters' dire need of dads and the failure of most other elected urban Democrats to speak about that need for paternal responsibility (beyond conception) is why I'm a Republican. Telling poor people that they are 'owed' a better life is a sure-fire way to keep them impoverished. And men who bring children into the world and then fail to even try supporting them are criminals; stealing their children's futures.

At the age of 12, I started delivering newspapers because I wanted stuff my parents could not afford. I went to work, just like they went to work. But if, like thirty million poor kids today, I had no father around to cheer me on, encouraging me by word and example to do better than he did, I still might have delivered newspapers (or mopped floors). But when the time came, would I have stayed around to raise my own children?

The funny thing about Speaker Gingrich's suggestion that they learn to be janitors is that inner-city kids have almost zero chance of landing such a fat, cushy, plush job. According to a recent investigation by WNBC News, "According to the union contract governing New York City Custodian engineers, the men and women responsible for keeping school buildings clean make up to $114,000 a year in base pay." Additionally, 20 NYC janitors made over $140,000 in base salary and overtime in 2010. The minimum pay for a first-year custodial engineer is almost $80,000 a year. The highest paid janitor made $181,000. By contrast, first year New York City school teachers without graduate degrees make about $45,000.

Newt Gingrich was right when he labeled Congressman Paul Ryan's plan to gut Medicare "right-wing social engineering." He was right when he called for a humane and flexible approach to illegal immigration. And he is also right about the importance of learning the work ethic early in life. But that goes for kids on both sides of the tracks. And unless he can get his new best friend Donald Trump to offer janitorial apprenticeships at the many building bearing the Trump name, Newt's suggestion of a mop for every ghetto child is bold, but dopey.

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