With his slightly round form and thatch of white hair, Newt Gingrich might, with a little blush and a beard, pass for St. Nick. But any poor kid writing a letter to this particular GOP hopeful might end up with a lump of coal or a bucket and mop.
Rather than back off his plan to rethink “stupid” child labor laws and put children as young as 9 to work as school janitors — scrubbing, cleaning and moving around file cabinets — Gingrich has doubled down.
“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,’’ he said recently. “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.”
Others have pointed to the Dickensian tone of his callous remarks, taking from the beloved “A Christmas Carol” not the transformed Scrooge’s generosity of spirit and Tiny Tim’s “God bless us, every one!” but the miser’s unrepentant reply to those collecting for the poor: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”
Gingrich’s image of poor homes would be laughable if it weren’t so widely and perniciously accepted among those who have never set foot in one. The stereotype that wealth is a reward for good behavior and poverty is more character flaw than economic circumstance is ubiquitous. You can see why wealthy types who sent manufacturing jobs overseas and manipulated financial systems for their benefit would find Gingrich’s words appealing; they eliminate any cause and effect between their actions and a growing poverty rate.
Many poor people are too busy working a patchwork of low-paying jobs to even be offended. And the children spoken of so dismissively by Gingrich? The ones I have worked with — in the programs that still exist to lend a hand — fill their time not just with schoolwork but with chores, dragging bags of laundry up and down motel stairs to the laundromat or getting dinner started because Mom works a late-shift job. If Gingrich had said that poor children are probably more familiar with scutwork than children used to help from a housekeeper or a stay-at-home parent and would therefore be more efficient, that would have made some sense.
I’m not trying to replace one stereotype with another. Indolence and lack of ambition exist, to be sure, but they exist across the economic spectrum. All it takes is a glance at countless cable TV shows to see appalling behavior by the rich and famous, with laziness only one of many sins.
Perhaps I’m taking this personally because I remember my own working-class Baltimore home, where my four siblings, parents and I shared no vacations or many extras and counted every penny. Then again, who cared about restaurants when Mom’s holiday cooking beat anything on a menu? For years she could list homemaker as primary job because there was no lack of the kinds of jobs that helped the struggling keep their heads above water.
Around the holidays, especially, my dad could always find extra work washing dishes, serving or tending bar for caterers busy with parties. Mom counted on the Christmas rush at the post office for extra work and a little more money that could make the holiday festive.
Of course, that was when government jobs were a refuge, especially for African Americans, when private businesses weren’t so welcoming. But those positions are disappearing, with calls to eliminate those that remain, and the post office system itself may not survive. No one else is throwing out an employment lifeline, either, although the hopeful still line up at job fairs, dressed in their best and with resumes in hand.
Gingrich’s remarks imply that the only way a poor parent can teach a child is by his or her absence — by leaving to go to a job. But parenting involves much more. Poor parents, like their rich counterparts, have the responsibility to teach morality and kindness, and the difference between right and wrong.
The job of stay-at-home parent (particularly Mom) is a position raised to secular sainthood when undertaken by the well-to-do, with images of homemade cookies and a home-cooked meal. But it is derided and devalued when chosen by the poor, as though you need cash to qualify for the right to guide your child through life, to be on call for a school visit or just a reassuring word. Yet, “latchkey kid” is an insult. The poor really can’t win.
The reality is that any parent, regardless of the size of his or her paycheck, can teach their children that every person is deserving of consideration. It’s a lesson Gingrich seems to have missed.
Mary C. Curtis is a writer based in Charlotte.