Gingrich's poverty solution: Pay poor kids to be janitors

OPINION - The former Speaker proposes that in poor neighborhoods, the 'schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school.' Poverty solved...

A few weeks ago in an appearance at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said: “It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children in, first of all, child laws, which are truly stupid.” The former Speaker then went on to propose that in poor neighborhoods, the “schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school.” Poverty solved.

Gingrich was thought to be a longshot for the Republican presidential nomination. His campaign was in its infancy when his campaign manager and other key aides abruptly and unexpectedly quit back in June, leaving pundits to wonder whether he could manage to recover and be a true contender.

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And he wasn’t — as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney became the front-runner, followed by a host of second place contenders, including Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, and Texas Governor Rick Perry. Romney’s closest competitors have won favor among the extreme right-wing of the GOP, branded “Tea Party candidates,” but each has seen their surge come and go, as they have not stood up to the pressures of presidential campaigning. Bachmann’s dismissal of facts, Cain’s sexual harassment/assault/fidelity issues, and Perry’s poor debate performances have left the staunch conservative wing of the Republican party searching for an alternative to Romney’s moderate, flip-flopping candidacy.

Enter Gingrich, who has experienced a surge in the polls after the implosion of Cain’s campaign. Conventional wisdom still holds that Romney will be the nominee, but Gingrich has presented an interesting challenge. His conservative bonafides can’t be argued, as co-author of the 1994 “Contract with America” that is very similar to the Tea Party platform, and he is perceived to be candidate best equipped to challenge President Obama in the debates. Also, having been a public figure for the better part of three decades, his past has been vetted, all of his indiscretions and controversial positions made public record. Voters know what they’re getting with Newt.

So we thought. Whether this is an attempt to throw his candidacy because his campaign was never meant to be more than a promotional tool to sell books and increase speaking fees (as some pundits have hypothesized) or a result of his front-runner status offering him a larger platform to bloviate freely, Gingrich is upping the ante on controversy. Not in terms of potentially alienating his base by proposing to take a “humane” approach to the issue of illegal immigration, but by doubling down on an issue one would think has long been solved: child labor laws.

It isn’t enough that Gingrich essentially wants to repeal child labor laws that would set the county back not the 1980s but the 1880s, but he demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding on the ways in which poverty works.

He further confirmed this ignorance this week when he said: “Really poor children, in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works so they have no habit of showing up on Monday,” and adding, “they have no habit of staying all day, they have no habit of I do this and you give me cash unless it is illegal.”
Gingrich also, in an interview with ABC’s Jake Tapper, took the time to point at the black teenage unemployment rate (43 percent) and suggest that Obama must experience “cognitive dissonance because how can he look in – how can he say, ‘This is the community I have done so little for?’” It’s clear this is a strategy to chip away at black support for Obama. Note to Newt: Bachmann and Cain have both tried this. It ain’t gonna work.

More importantly, as income inequality and economic security become larger political issues as a result of the Occupy movement (that Gingrich has so disgustingly dismissed), exhibiting such levels of ignorance on the issue of poverty will be a liability. Gingrich believes that the poor are poor because they don’t work, when 72 percent of low-income people are indeed employed (latest data as of 2009).

Children living in poverty have more familiarity with work than Gingrich thinks when, according to the Working Poor Families Project, the “average annual work effort for low-income working families is 2,552 hours, roughly one and one-quarter full-time jobs.” This is in addition to the fairly new classification of “near-poor” that according to the New York Times looks “more like The Brady Bunch than The Wire.” This group is barely scraping by, to the point that missing one paycheck could prove utterly and irreversibly devastating.

However, that wouldn’t fit Gingrich’s conservative narrative of the poor as lazy and unwilling to work. This information would suggest he, and others like him, needs to re-evaluate his core beliefs. It’s best for him to ignore these statistics and continue to cash $60,000 checks for speaking engagements and rack up consulting fees of $1.5 million from Freddie Mac.

The New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper made news when their editorial board officially endorsed Gingrich’s campaign, in part because, according to publisher Joseph W. McQuaid, “Gingrich is going to have a better time in the general election than Mitt Romney. I think it’s going to be Obama’s 99 versus the 1 percent and Romney sort of represents the 1 percent.”

As Gingrich gears up for a meeting with the original Tea Party champion, Donald Trump, he does more and more to firmly establish himself, not just financially but ideologically, as a part of the 1 percent. It plays well with the ignorant wing of his party because, as Nobel prize winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman put it, “he’s a stupid man’s idea of what a smart person sounds like.”

What it won’t do, if he manages to make it out of the GOP primary as the nominee, is help him build the broad coalition of voters necessary to be successful in the general election.