We have, haven’t we, been privy lately to a number of spontaneous outbursts from the Republican presidential candidates. A late example of off-the-cuff, so it would seem, impulse comes from Newt Gingrich, who may well be one of the few Republican contenders who can be taken as a serious potential president of the United States. If we are to believe what the former Speaker of the House says, Newt has strong feelings regarding child labor; he feels that impoverished youngsters would do well to work themselves out of poverty.
In a speech at Harvard last Friday, Gingrich called the current child labor laws “truly stupid”, and specifically suggested that American schools should get rid of unionized janitors, retaining one supervising janitor who would oversee the cleaning and trash removal effort by enterprising students, who would be paid to take care of their school. Gingrich feels that many successful individuals began work sometime between the ages of nine and fourteen.
In fact current child labor laws are not as limiting as one may think. The Child Labor Act prohibits minors from working in hazardous occupations, or under hazardous conditions. Additionally, minors 14 and 15 may not work during school hours or after 7 PM, if the next day is a school day. A minor is not allowed to work more than three hours on school days, and during the summer, the latest the young can work is generally 7:00 PM. From ages 16 to 17, the hours are extended somewhat, but work cannot be done on school days. Forms must be presented to the local officials, and remain enforced until the end of the school year.
Child labor in the U.S. has in some instances been found to be hazardous. A Human Rights Watch petition in 2009 mentions that hundreds of thousands of children were at that time employed as farmworkers in the United States, often working ten or more hours a day. These young farmworkers were exposed to pesticides, experienced high rates of injury, and had a rate of fatalities five times greater than other working youth. Dropout rates were and remain alarming; half never finish high school. In the early days of America, factory owners were permitted to hire children for a variety of tasks; in textile mills children were regularly hired together with their parents. The families in these towns needed the extra money for survival.
Speaker Gingrich says that such work would increase self esteem and devotion to the school, the center of learning. Their labors could also place some handy cash in the pockets of the stalwart young. Child labor laws, he says, entrap poor children in poverty. Newt criticizes those who tell poor children in poor neighborhoods they shouldn’t work, shouldn’t get a “hamburger flipping job.” Newt says that enterprising young folk should accept any job that requires them to show up on Monday, and any job that teaches them to stay on all day, in spite of their life crises, in spite of perhaps an ongoing fight with a girlfriend. Maybe Newt is on to something.