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Gingrich, anti-poverty warrior

Posted: December 15, 2011 11:12 a.m.
Updated: December 16, 2011 5:00 a.m.

'Tis the season, it appears, for Newt Gingrich to show his dual political personalities: naughty and nice.

We can hear both Nice Newt and Naughty Newt in the Republican presidential candidate's headline-making suggestion to fight poverty: Put poor children to work replacing union janitors in schools.

Speaking at Harvard's Kennedy School in late November, he attacked child labor laws as "truly stupid" and blamed income inequality on policies that protect unions and bureaucracies, "crippling" children in the poorest neighborhoods by putting them in failing schools.

The hit against child labor laws is novel even for Naughty Newt, although not his first display of a fascination with the child and family politics of the Charles Dickens era. As speaker of the House in the mid-1990s, he suggested in another unscripted moment that we bring back orphanages as an alternative to welfare payments to unwed mothers. That's Newt. Always thinking.

Riding high in the polls during a more recent campaign stop in Iowa, Gingrich elaborated on his youth jobs idea. He suggested that poor children only be put to work in non-hazardous "three or four hour a day" jobs, such as "assistant janitors," librarians or "greeters in the school office." Unfortunately, Naughty Newt continued to paint poor kids with a broad, stereotypical brush.

"Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works," he said. "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."

No, he's not entirely wrong. There's no question that kids need to learn a good work ethic. As my late father -- himself a janitor for most of his adult life -- used to say, it won't hurt the young'uns to learn how to earn an honest dollar. However, creating jobs for kids by putting grownups out of work doesn't sound like a very healthy tradeoff.

And there's a bigger problem in what Gingrich's argument leaves out. He ignores how much poor kids already know about the value of work, thanks partly to the 1996 welfare reforms that Gingrich helped to shape and promote when he was speaker of the House.

Contrary to Newt's notion that poor kids are exposed to "relatively few people that go to work," most poor people do work. Unfortunately, their work doesn't pay enough to lift them above the government's poverty line.

About half of all the nation's poor working age (18 to 64 years of age) adults work full-time jobs, according to census data analyzed by Andrew A. Beveridge, a Queens College sociologist, and about half of the rest work part-time jobs.

And here's the irony: A lot of those working poor are working as a result of one of Gingrich's crowning achievements, the 1996 welfare reform law that as speaker of the House he pushed through Congress and pressured President Bill Clinton to sign.

Although critics, including me, feared that the bill's strong work requirements would throw millions of children into poverty, quite the opposite happened. Helped along by a strong economy, welfare caseloads dropped in half in five years. Child poverty also dropped from 20.8 percent in 1996 to 16.9 percent, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, the lowest since the 1970s.

And black child poverty fell to its lowest rates in American history, according to the conservative Heritage Foundation, which assisted in drafting the legislation.

With that in mind, Gingrich's remarks "really do a disservice to the conservative movement," said Robert L. Woodson, president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. "People should stand up and be self-sufficient, but it is insulting to generalize like that about a whole group of people, many of whom are working very hard."

Woodson, a former civil rights organizer who became a leading black conservative voice in the 1980s, led a group of community leaders who advised Gingrich and other congressmen on welfare reform. "Gingrich should talk about changing the (welfare) incentives and how you get more of what you reward and less of what you punish," Woodson said. "His statements were not even informed by his own experience."

Indeed, the saddest thing about Gingrich's suggestions to fight poverty is how the rest of the candidates seem to have said even less.

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