Newt Gingrich’s proposal to put poor children to work because, he says, they’re not learning the “work habit” in public housing projects has been condemned by critics as worthy of a Dickens novel.
Those who followed the GOP presidential candidate’s tumultuous legislative career in Washington say Gingrich’s latest foray into child welfare is not an anomaly.
As House Speaker in the mid-1990s, Gingrich proposed banning welfare benefits for children born to unmarried young women and using the funds to build orphanages for youngsters whose parents were failing them.
At the time, criticism and condemnation rained down on Gingrich.
His orphanage proposal, which was part of the contentious welfare overhaul debate in Congress, died a fairly quick death. A similar fate likely awaits his plan to have children undertake school janitorial duties now preformed by union workers.
But many of his critics, including some child advocates, say that both Gingrich’s work and orphanage proposals have merit. It’s the way he presents them that raises hackles.
“To me, this is vintage Newt,” Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brookings Center on Children and Families, says of Gingrich’s jobs-for-kids plan.
“He has a good point, but he says it in a way that many people find offensive,” says Haskins, a former Republican congressional staff member and author of Work Over Welfare: The Inside Story of the 1996 Welfare Reform Law.
There is strong data that shows the lifelong benefits of learning the work ethic at an early age, Haskins says, from better pay to personal stability.
Gingrich, however, wrapped his child work proposal around a claim that parents, mostly single mothers, living with their children in housing projects don’t provide a model for hard work.
It’s a claim easily disproved by U.S. Census Bureau data, Haskins says.
“Many of those mothers work, and way more work than in the past because of the welfare-to-work law he worked on in the 1990s,” Haskins says. “If the economy were better, more would work, but they certainly have been setting an example.”
According to census data, 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, the data showed.
Other critics found their own ammunition. The Hill reported that Obama supporter and actress Eva Longoria attacked Gingrich on Twitter, saying that Latina entrepreneurs start businesses at six times the national average.
Gingrich, in suggesting that children work as school janitors, also stepped on the toes of the union representing school janitors of the adult variety.
And child labor laws? “Truly stupid,” Gingrich said during an appearance last month at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
The nation’s federal Fair Labor Standards Act sets 14 as the minimum age for most non-agricultural work, though states can pass stricter laws.
The federal act allows youngsters of any age to “deliver newspapers; perform in radio, television, movie or theatrical productions; work in businesses owned by their parents with the exception of mining, manufacturing or hazardous job.” They can also babysit , perform “minor chores” around a private home, and “gather evergreens and make evergreen wreaths.”
There are different age requirements for youngsters working in agriculture.
During the welfare overhaul debate in the 1990s, Gingrich in his push to “end welfare as we know it,” sought to create state-run orphanages arguing that many children would be better off there than with dysfunctional parents.
During interviews, he talked about babies in dumpsters. Abandoned children. A “little four-year-old who was thrown off a balcony in Chicago [who] would have been a heck of a lot better of at Boys Town.”
Critics charged that it would be a return to the 19th century and also ratchet up costs. Then-First Lady Hillary Clinton called the proposal “absurd and unbelievable.” Liberal commentators characterized the plan as an element of a war on the poor.
“We are not about tearing away babies from their mothers,” Rep. David Bonior of Michigan, serving as Democratic whip, said at the time.
Richard McKenzie, an economics professor at the University of California Irvine, however, says he was inspired by the orphanage debate.
“I grew up in an orphanage, and before the media storm erupted over his proposal, I had never gone public about my upbringing,” he said.
McKenzie ended up writing a column for the Wall Street Journal defending orphanages as imperfect but, as he says, “a damn sight better than what I had.”
He has since written books about orphanages, including Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century, and continues to collect data on the experiences of people raised in orphanages. McKenzie is also an adjunct scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute.
“I think Gingrich was more right than he knew, and once he got hit from all sides, he backpedaled,” McKenzie says.
He sees orphanages, or “residential academies” as many are now called, as a needed option for children living in abusive or dysfunction homes as he was. Both his parents were non-functioning alcoholics.
“Now, there are two ideologies — family preservation and family reunification,” McKenzie says. “Preservation can leave kids in a bad situation until it gets really bad, and reunification can put children in and out of foster homes, going in circles.”
“Modern-day orphanages are simply nothing like they were in the 1950s, or 200 years ago,” he said.
Haskins agrees, but acknowledges there is great disagreement among child advocates about orphanages.
“We need lot of choices,” Haskins says, “and one should be quality orphanages.”
Gingrich, however, given his personality and penchant for bombast, is not the one to be carrying the message, Haskins and McKenzie say.
“It would be better for Newt to be measured on these issues, but he wants to say things in a radical way,” Haskins says.
McKenzie agrees. “I met him 30 years ago, and am not impressed with his ability to deal with people without being sarcastic and nasty,” he says.
Gingrich has not yet raised the issue of orphanages this campaign, and this week attempted to soften his child work proposal by referring to the effort as an “apprenticeship” plan.
His campaign spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.