Is There Truth In Gingrich's Remarks On The Poor?

Newt Gingrich has made controversial comments about the lack of employed role models for poor kids — and suggested that they be given jobs after school as janitors. Those who have been dealing with children and poverty for years say Gingrich's comments may be exaggerated, but there's an element of truth in what he says.

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Newt Gingrich created a stir with his recent comments about poor children. The former House speaker said they had no role models for what it means to work, and he suggested they be given jobs after school as janitors. Poverty experts insist a lot of what Gingrich says is off the wall but that deep down there's also an element of truth, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Newt Gingrich has a way of tossing out some farfetched ideas, like a professor trying to provoke a hearty debate. And indeed, that's exactly what he's done, first with comments last month at Harvard when he called child labor laws stupid.

NEWT GINGRICH: OK. You say to somebody: You shouldn't go to work before you're, what, 14, 16 years of age. Fine. You're totally poor. You're in a school that is failing with a teacher that's failing. I've tried for years to have a very simple model. Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school.

FESSLER: That would teach them a work ethic, because, as Gingrich said later in Des Moines...

GINGRICH: Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works. So literally, they 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.

FESSLER: Gingrich has since moderated those comments after a wave of criticism. He now says poor children shouldn't do dangerous janitorial work, and that maybe they could work in the school library or front office. But he hasn't backed off his insistence that remarkably few people in the poorest communities work.

ANDREA LEVERE: In many low-income families, not only do their parents work one job, but many of these families work two jobs and three jobs.

FESSLER: Andrea Levere is president of the Corporation for Enterprise Development, a nonprofit that helps low-income families build wealth. She notes that most poor children do live in families with a working adult.

LEVERE: So we see extraordinary levels of commitment and hard work in these communities. And so, in my view, it's completely unfair to make a blanket statement like this.

FESSLER: Even in the public housing projects that Gingrich often cites, about half of non-elderly, non-disabled households get most of their income from wages.

RON HASKINS: To me this is vintage Newt.

FESSLER: Ron Haskins co-directs the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution.

HASKINS: He has a point, and I think it's accurate. It's not only accurate, it's extremely important. But often, he says things in ways that provoke a lot of people. I think, sometimes, he intends to do that.

FESSLER: Haskins says more poor children have working models than they used to in large part because of a welfare reform bill that Newt Gingrich championed in the 1990s. But Haskins agrees that poor teens are in desperate need of work, and even if it's as a janitor, that's better than nothing.

HASKINS: It would be a valuable experience for the kids. They certainly wouldn't - shouldn't work anything close to full time but several hours a week. And especially if they got cash, that would be a very good thing, and they would learn a big lesson - be on time and all that. And if I work, I can get cash.

FESSLER: He says studies show that kids who work are more likely to have jobs as adults and to earn higher wages. Curtis Skinner with the National Center for Children in Poverty says the problem is a lack of jobs, not unwillingness to work, but he's not at all in favor of the Gingrich plan.

DR. CURTIS SKINNER: I don't like the idea that other kids know that the kids cleaning up the trash, their trash...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SKINNER: ...because the kid comes from a public housing project. And, you know, you can say, well, the kid voluntarily took the job, but I think it also has a stigmatizing effect.

FESSLER: Skinner says a better solution is one of many existing programs that combine work experience with education and training to help lift kids out of poverty. Unfortunately, he says, these programs are repeatedly getting their budgets cut. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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