Newt Gingrich’s “big” idea about poverty is ignorant, callous and dangerous

by on December 8, 2011 · 14 comments

in Civil Rights, Economy, Education, Election, Politics, Popular

By Anne Geiger / Public Policy Blogger

Refreshing to read Kathleen Parker this morning as she eviscerates the “big” idea of ever-pompous Newt Gingrich to give poor kids the work ethic he believes they lack by firing their school custodians and pay the kids to—- clean the floors, desks, windows and cafeteria tables, scrub and sanitize bathroom sinks and toilets, sweep sidewalks, shovel snow, bag and dispose of trash and garbage, clear clogged pipes, etc. etc. This, mind you, while putting aside their real job of learning every day.

To be custodians, they would need to come in early even though they stayed up late doing their homework the night before because they first had to take care of a younger sibling while their mom caught a few winks between her two jobs. And they would need to stay late after school although that’s usually when they interpret for their grandmother when she goes to the doctor or the grocery store, or move to a new apartment because the pipes broke and the landlord has gone missing. To add insult to injury, he apparently thinks these kids, unlike their more affluent peers, should clean their schools as their extra-curricular activity instead of participating in sports, student government, jazz band, art club or the chess team.

The underlying message is even more disturbing. He paints all families living in poverty as lazy and criminal. Never mind that jobs are scarce in the inner city and rural outreaches where most poverty is concentrated. That many are still learning English and trying to navigate obtuse paths into the American mainstream. That nutritional food needed for healthy brains and bodies is hard to come by in these communities. That those who have escaped through consistent education, a unique opportunity or sheer grit often leave and don’t look back, thus leaving kids with few examples of a more abundant life.

(I suggest Mr. Gingrich take his idea face-to-face to the kids and families. Look them in the eye. Tell them other kids in wealthier schools won’t have this “opportunity” to clean toilets and get paid for it. Just them. Tell them it will make them stronger. Better. Ask their parents why they’re all deadbeats and criminals. Tell them you don’t think they have the ability to inspire or support their children. But, you do. See what they say, Mr. Presidential Candidate. See what they say.)

Alas, Mr. Gingrich subscribes to the time-worn, simplistic belief of many conservatives, mainly Republican but not all, that those of lesser means got there because they don’t work hard enough. No work ethic. No fire in the belly. Prone to laziness and crime. Living in the South for most of my life, where this belief, this Ayn Rand ideology reigns, I’ve heard it over and over again. And I see the results. Persistently low rankings in education, health, nutrition and income. Society persistently stratified. A big tent it is not. An understanding of the complexities and brutal truths of poverty it is not. A path to opportunity and prosperity for all it is not. As Ms. Parker writes,

Republicans have always been wedded to the idea that Americans, given opportunity, can pull themselves up by the bootstraps. In fact, most people subscribe to this very American narrative to varying degrees. But missing from the vision of the coldest eye is acknowledgment that sometimes people have no boots. (My emphasis.)

With a degree of charity not apparent in Gingrich’s remarks, one can hypothesize what he may have meant, such as perhaps one can imagine becoming only what one has seen. How does a child who has never witnessed a doctor or lawyer in his everyday world imagine himself as one? Alas, Gingrich didn’t start there.

I’ve seen poverty up close and personal through the children I’ve mentored and schools I’ve served. Kids living in poverty don’t need to learn how to clean toilets. They need education, empowerment and empathy.

Education to level the playing field. Equivalent to any affluent school: Rich curriculum for building knowledge and enabling analytical and critical thinking; well-supported, well-educated teachers who are intuitive, innovative, dedicated; stable, consistent, dedicated administrators; safe, well-equipped buildings and classrooms; frequent, dynamic opportunities for team learning, hands-on learning, research, debate, leadership, community involvement. The horse is out of the barn with education “reform” built on standardized testing, school turnarounds and charter schools, and it’s most acutely affecting schools in impoverished urban neighborhoods. Despite what reform proponents say, it’s a very inefficient way to spend public dollars. It tends more to fracturing fragile neighborhoods than strengthening them. It tends to place priority in the wrong places— test scores as the primary measure for reward or punishment, disruption and choice as ends not means, and an influential private industry embedded in and profiting from the reform.

Too few see that in our market-based economy in which other sectors are declining, opportunities abound for business models that use the low-risk leverage of public dollars spent in every state, every county, every city to educate children. And if that education, on its current “reform” path, needs the capacity of the private sector to: create the software and textbooks for the standards, design, score and report the tests, train the teachers to prepare students to take the tests, provide managers to turn around “failing” schools that don’t reach score benchmarks, create and manage charter schools… well, it’s pretty clear where this is going. There’s always been a proper and helpful role of the private sector in public education, but we’re in whole new territory now.

Proponents of this reform like Mr. Gingrich (and our President, I might add) seem blind to its consequences to the low-income children whom they profess to care about. When we take teaching and learning, or in Mr. Gingrich’s case a work ethic, to the lowest common denominator or most simplistic form, we’ll never educate children to the level needed to survive, strive and thrive in our economy or society.

Empowerment to instill the language and currency of success in our competitive economy and society and provide paths to the opportunities that economy and society provide. Working with the awareness that “you don’t know what you don’t know.” Adults in classrooms and leadership consistently modeling, teaching and inspiring children and youth to establish good habits in studying, communicating, planning and reaching goals. As the old saying goes, knowledge is power. Acknowledging that most families living in poverty are doing their best, but often are worn out from the daily hurdles to a stable, sufficient life. That they too need support, information, access and empowerment to better provide for their families and be primary players in preparing their children for the “real world.” Together, schools, families and communities making sure that children in their care complete their education, make life plans and fulfill the quintessential goal to live a better life than their parents, taking the family one more rung up the ladder and empowering their own children to do the same.

Elites and ideologues like Mr. Gingrich look at those who struggle and assume laziness or ineptitude, and thus his brilliant idea to “let them clean toilets.” I must point out, too, that I’ve seen some liberals, a different kind of elite, who underestimate the intelligence and abilities of those living in poverty. As I told my successor on the school board, while sharing my experience serving the low-income neighborhoods in our district, the children and youth in these communities don’t need your pity, they need empowerment.

Empathy to shore up the honor and self-respect that all human beings need to survive, strive and thrive.  Respecting their humanity, taking the time to understand their circumstances, trying to live a day in their shoes. Getting to know the young people who’ve come into our lives over the years, my husband and I learned a lot about ourselves, how we could make assumptions, underestimate, misunderstand and be fearful or uncomfortable. It takes time. It requires respect. Showing up. Being there. For the long haul. I’ve grown tired of current conservatives, and I have plenty of friends and family who are in that camp, who believe in the “pull up your bootstraps and get a job.” Like it’s that simple for those who don’t speak English very well, don’t have enough food to eat, don’t know how they’ll cobble together scholarships they need to stay in college or don’t know what it’s like to have a stable, permanent home.

Today’s conservatives say if you talk about our collective responsibilities to one other, then you must be a socialist. Bullshit. Human beings exist for each other. We live in cooperation to meet our intellectual, physical and emotional needs. We live in collaboration to solve shared problems and forge new paths. This kind of synergy, mutual dependency crosses cultural backgrounds, socio-economic status and level of education.

I purposefully used the word empathy instead of sympathy, a more remote behavior, because we share more than we often acknowledge. And empathy leads to compassion. The ability to see someone else’s suffering or difficulty, and jumping in to see how you can help ease the suffering or overcome the difficulty. That’s where the education and empowerment come in, and a lot of other kinds of support, too. We are a compassionate people. I don’t buy it that there is an Ayn Rand bursting to get out in each of us. We may be independent and feisty, but when confronted with a big challenge, we are much more inclined to assist one other than tell each other to pound sand. We do it because we care about each other, but we also know that the success of others impacts our own. Or at least that’s been the dynamic. Until now. The real and scary danger with the rhetoric coming out of current conservatives, so glaringly exposed in Mr. Gingrich’s “big” idea, is to tell newcomers and the younger generation that here in America, you’re on your own, baby. Just take care of yourself. Don’t count on the government. It’s bad. Stratified society is OK. Fractured communities are OK. Different rules depending on where you live, what you make, who your parents are. All OK.

But, don’t worry. If you struggle, there will always be plenty of toilets to clean.

Surely, most will see this as unacceptable. And un-American. Surely. I hope.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

The Bearded OBcean December 8, 2011 at 9:39 am

Wow. Talk about missing the forest for the trees. While Gingrich is often quite a bloviator of epic proportions, his idea is more about adding structure to a kid’s life; Helping a kid gain structure in life through work, when they have no one around them with which to learn. How does a kid Would the author have been happier had his example been something other than janitorial work? His point has nothing to do with rich v poor (ie the rich kid often will have family members who work). His idea lends itself to improving one’s lot in life through one’s own work, not through through government largesse.


Marisa December 9, 2011 at 1:05 pm

He had no other example, because the kids would have already been right there at school. Convenience. He’s an idiot and so are you for thinking that putting kids to labor at schools will solve anything. Work ethic is taught one place. In the home. I learned it from my parents and millions of poor kids learn it every day by watching their parents work. To assume poor people are poor because they don’t have a work ethic is phenomenally IGNORANT. Most are poor because they are underpaid, ‘slave’ labor for our economy. I worked my butt off when I was in my 20’s and living well under the poverty line. I had three jobs, was gone from my home from 7 am – 11 pm on weekdays and 5 am – 4pm selling at the Swap Meet on Weekends. I barely survived. People like you need to understand that there are millions of people in this country who are “WORKING POOR”. They aren’t the cause of the problems in this country, they are, however, the scape goats.


The Bearded OBcean December 9, 2011 at 2:13 pm

You’re fairly rational, aren’t you? Good for you for working hard; That’s great and to be admired. What is ignorant is assuming that everyone has a good role model to follow. A great number do not. And isn’t that part of the problem? So many of these kids don’t have parents with an “S”. They have one. As I mentioned, perhaps his use of cleaning toilets was the wrong choice to make (as it obviously led you off a ledge). But his point is salient. Working teaches responsibility, and hopefully, good habits. His argument is about the cycle of poverty in deeply poor areas. To pretend otherwise is sad. Really poor kids in really poor neighborhoods often don’t have 2 parents nor do they have anyone in their life who works. That is simply true, whether you want to stomp your feet and shout about it or not.

Your arugment is filled with strawmen. No one is scapegoating poor people, nor is anyone whistling passed the graveyard. Nobody is accusing them of being the cause of problems either. Take a deep breath because you’re diving into critiques to which Gingrich never even alluded.

The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself”


john December 9, 2011 at 2:38 pm

“They aren’t the cause of the problems in this country, they are, however, the scape goats.”

Wait, what brought wall street into the discussion?


TalismanFan December 8, 2011 at 10:08 am

Structure for a child is good, but so is aspiring to more than cleaning toilets. At what point do our schools become a vocational training ground vs. a place to learn good study habits, getting along with others different than ourselves and (gasp!), a sense of belonging to a community? Newt has is head up his ass on this one. Leave work-study programs for college, Mr. G, and define a plan to make college accessible to ALL kids by focusing on the three Rs in grade school.


Hope December 8, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Wow! Thanks! I was hoping this “bright idea” would go fully under a microscope and you have done so. Still from at least one comment it seems that people understand what they want and to think deeper than the surface is hard.
Ideas, like this are, oh so easy, to come up with for people who have never actually lived in poverty, especailly the urban multi-generation deep poverty that is soaked in apathy. “Just have them clean the school and they will get a work ethic” pretty simple advice from someone who has never missed any meals as we see clearly from Mr Gingrich. No name calling from me though, actually I would like to thank him for putting his well manicured foot in his big mouth because his “idea” is on the table and we can get a good gander at it.
I am an actual person who has grown up in poverty. I know that the biggest things to “over-come” are NOT lack of food, place to live or life’s essentials, it’s the feeling you are not as good, worthy or able as the kids two blocks away because you are poor. Yes, there is no such thing as equal and I do not suggest pretending anything of the sort but it’s in EVERYONE’s interest to help a kid feel they CAN succeed and we should all be invested in helping them carry as little of their parent’s life choices, regrets and challenges to school as they possibly can! We leagally require kids go to school so let’s make it as even a playing feild as possible. FACT: They can do all the anti-bulling workshops in the world, a kid WILL be picked on cleaning up after other kids with money. They will feel inferior and inferiority is the the #1 killer of desire to make your life better. “Why try, everyone will laugh, this is all I’m good enough to do”
Your point about watching younger sibilings so parent’s can work: THANK YOU! I did that. Poor kids are dealing with constant crisis. I never had anyone to help me with any homework. We moved when the rent was due because it was impossible for my folks to save a month of rent back and when a minor thing like a car repair happened well their went dinner and the rent. I DID get a job at 14 and worked as much as I could from then on AND MY SCHOOLING SUFFERED. I dropped out so I could work because I wanted the same things my friends had : clothing, and the ability to buy a shake at McDonalds…. Someone should have told me and helped me to: NOT WORK! STAY IN SCHOOL AND get a degree. Thanks Mr Gingrich I took your advice and it sucked!


Pweckster December 8, 2011 at 3:30 pm

This column nails it. My mom grew up in rural poverty in the 1930s & 1940s, and she always said people don’t understand how hard it is to pull yourself out of it. I’ll never forget when we saw the movie “Stand and Deliver.” She said it was missing a major component: a detailed acknowledgment of how a child’s desire and hard work aren’t always enough if the structures around them aren’t set up to encourage learning and success. My mom only managed to rise out of poverty because she had a very involved teacher from ages 7-12 who saw her potential and urged my grandmother to let my mom study more instead of working to support the family while still in her teens. My mom was lucky that her widowed mom actually listened to the teacher and agreed to it — despite the fact that she herself was working 3 jobs to support her 5 kids. My mom ended up becoming a grade-school teacher. Her higher education allowed her to meet and marry a college-educated man and have a comfortable middle-class life. Many poor kids aren’t lucky enough to have teachers and moms like that…


adam strange December 8, 2011 at 8:45 pm

great blog. well said.
activate this luntz: conservative frauds. conservative frauds. conservative frauds.


anthony laino December 8, 2011 at 10:16 pm

This is of no surprise. The presidential candidates for this nation are front men for corporations who will make slaves of the working class and the poor at any cost. With the mainstream media controlled by such evils, truth is limited to those who seek alternative information which is hard to find. Every aspect of the way we live is influenced by the 1% and only the skeletons of those people from other countries can really speak of the atrocities that the savage beast whose insatiable appetites cannot be controlled nor will it until every resource worldwide has been incorporated and privatized, for the belly of beast will never be full.


john December 9, 2011 at 12:33 am

My, my, how times have changed.
One of President Jimmy Carter’s pet programs was called CETA. (don’t recall what the acronym deciphered to).
I participated in it two years in a row as a teenager in the late 70’s. In essence, it guaranteed a teenager whose family fell under certain low income guidelines, a full time minimum wage job for the summer months they were not in school. Even if you screwed up and clowned around and were asked to leave an assignment, you went back to the CETA office and were given another. Though I had a variety of different assignments including a California Division of Forestry camp where I did back breaking work clearing brush, splitting firewood, and washing firetrucks so the crews returning from the front lines of wildfires didn’t have to, (almost the whole second summer) one of the most common assignments was being sent to schools to assist the janitorial staff in the extensive cleaning during summer recess.
Is it really that things have changed that much and we no longer think its a good idea to install a work ethic into teens- or isn’t it really that the only thing that’s changed is the party behind the President or candidate that proposed the program?
I’m sort of perplexed at the point talismanfan was making about teens aspiring to do something better than clean toilets. What industry are you in where the inexperienced start their careers by being assigned management positions? It’s assumed these kids will be assigned these tasks because they aren’t experienced at anything else, if they were they wouldn’t be in the program and will already have jobs in the private sector. If they have never had a job AND are living in poverty YET feel cleaning toilets is beneath their station in life and that is the sentiment you are representing, let me say that partisanship is reaching a new level to defend that.
To hope: you have a valid point about having to work hurting schooling, but I don’t think Gingrich is suggesting a program that gives kids hours so grueling it hurts their grades. In fact we can be sure there would be checks and balances with the kids counselors in school.
Any kids who are so busy with schoolwork getting ready for college , well their parents aren’t going to put them in this program, are they?


Marisa December 9, 2011 at 1:09 pm

I think SUMMER program is key here. You weren’t pulled away from your studies to wash the classroom windows.


john December 9, 2011 at 1:47 pm

What child do you know of that has so much school work it occupies all their time from 3-10 pm?
I don’t think I ever had so much homework I couldn’t do it on the bus home or within one hour’s time every evening.
It’s also a fantasy to believe every child should pursue a college education or that if they got one there is a high paying job that requires it waiting for them.
It’s important to realize that:
1. state education budgets are straining and they would welcome any funding to maintain their facilities.
2. any such program would be voluntary and the parents of the kids in it can make the choice if their kids have that extra time to spare or not.


TalismanFan December 10, 2011 at 3:57 pm

John, I didn’t mean management experience rather than cleaning toilets. Kids in school already have a job: to work diligently at their studies, get good grades and graduate. Gingrich’s proposal competes with that by suggesting they’re lazy and have no role models for “hard work” and so should be put to work. How about “jobs” in their school or local public library helping short-handed and under-funded library staff re-shelve books? They might even discover a book that interests them as they organize the shelves, and who knows where that might lead? Or a “job” as a reading buddy or math tutor to a peer or a younger student at the same school? Or helping with computers in the school, fixing them or showing other kids how to use office-type applications in new and clever ways? These are life skills. They can clean toilets at home. Newt might consider the differences between “hard work” and smart work for kids of grade-school age. But as I write this, he’s working hard on another topic, defending his invalidation of centuries of Middle Eastern history…


Jake December 16, 2011 at 10:10 pm

Kids these days need work ethic…not this grueling though…


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