The Gingrich Who Stole Childhood

Thank goodness for Newt Gingrich. The disgraced former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and Republican Presidential Candidate flavor-of-the-week is going to solve poverty in America by putting kids to work.

Gingrich, speaking last week at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, called child labor laws, the hard fought protections of social reformers during the 19th and 20th centuries, “truly stupid.” “The whole process of making work worthwhile is central,” said Gingrich, who believes his “extraordinarily radical proposals” would “change the culture of poverty in America.” Not satisfied with simply jettisoning child labor laws, Gingrich’s proposals also strike an anti-union pose; he wants to “get rid of the unionized janitors” because he believes “protecting unionization” is “crippling” children.

The benefits of youth employment have been well documented, and include the “development of a sense of responsibility, discipline, and teamwork” as well as the cultivation of new skills and a chance to save money for family needs and college savings. And so today children work successfully and healthily in any number of jobs. But the hazards of child labor, which include threats to a child’s education and significant health risks, cannot be overlooked.

In the 19th century, according to Steve Mintz, the Columbia University historian and author of Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, “two divergent conceptions of childhood emerged.” On the one hand was the “useful childhood,” which embraced the idea that child labor was “essential for a family’s well being.” For example, until the 20th century young children were used in a wide variety of dangerous jobs in the United States—as miners (the infamous breaker boys used to separate slate rock from coal), textile workers (including mill girls, some as young as 10), and cannery workers, some younger than 10, to name a few. This is the world it seems Gingrich wants to return us to.

On the other hand, writes Mintz, was the “protected childhood,” which idealized childhood as “sheltered from the stresses and demands of the adult world.” According to Mintz, “it took a concerted struggle lasting more than half a century to ensure that every child had a right to a childhood free from labor and devoted to education.”

This shift was accomplished by a series of government education reforms and child labor laws, culminating in 1938 during the New Deal with the Fair Labor Standards Act. Among the act's most important successes were establishing a federal minimum wage and creating child labor standards, including work hour and occupation limits, and limiting full time work to kids 16 and up. The law protects children from hazardous employment—16-years-old for agricultural jobs, 18 for other jobs. However, the law does not prevent the hiring of children under 14 for unlimited after school jobs on small farms with parental consent, and 14- and 15-year-olds can work unlimited hours in agricultural jobs after school.

Before we restructure child labor laws (a la Gingrich), we might want to consider the current state of child labor in the United States. A report published last year by the international human rights watchdog group Human Rights Watch calls attention to the health, safety, and education risks faced by agricultural child laborers. According to the report, 12-year-old children “often work for hire for 10 or more hours a day, five to seven days a week,” earning less than minimum wage, have a school dropout rate four times the national norm, and suffer fatalities more than four times the rate of kids working in non-farm jobs.

Children working on farms also face severe health-related risks, according to the report, including work with dangerous machinery, equipment, and tools; repetitive motion injuries; pressure to work fast, sick, and injured; pesticide exposure, work in extreme temperatures or poor sanitary conditions; limited access to health care, and sexual harassment and violence. To redress these risks, the report proposes that the Fair Labor Standards Act be amended to provide the same protections for agricultural and non-agricultural workers and to provide stronger enforcement mechanisms for the law.

Agricultural work is not the only place kids are injured on the job. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, from 1998 to 2007, there were an average of 795,000 nonfatal injuries a year to young workers. The U.S. Public Health Service has a goal of reducing rates of occupational injuries by 10% among working children by 2020.

The long history of child exploitation in the workplace, and the health risks that persist even today in such work, suggest that child labor laws need strengthening, not the kind of self-proclaimed radical transformation envisioned by Gingrich. Returning to an era of the “useful childhood” would not only harm society by placing children’s health and education at risk, but it would weaken us morally by placing the burden of poverty relief on children – and not on the adults who created this mess in the first place.

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