By Rev. Jesse L. Jackson
Republican front-runner Newt Gingrich appeals to working Americans by slandering the poor. Gingrich recently denounced child labor laws as “truly stupid,” suggesting that schools should fire janitors and hire students under the age of 16 to clean the place.
When critics said he would send America back to the age depicted by Dickens, Gingrich defended himself by sustaining the slander of the poor:
“Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works. So, 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.”
This is ugly and stupid stuff. In fact, most poor people work every day that they can. And 83 percent of all poor children live in households with at least one adult who works. Their parents often work two or three jobs to support the family. Poor working parents work longer hours on average than their wealthier counterparts, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
When you visit a fast-food restaurant, those are poor youth working the trays, without health benefits. The vendors at the ball games are mainly poor and without benefits. When LSU and Alabama play the big bowl game, we’ll be watching players from mainly poor backgrounds, “working/playing” without wages.
Our military consists mainly of youth from poor backgrounds — like Shoshanna Johnson and Jessica Lynch, our all-volunteer armed services that are the pride of the nation.
Newt Gingrich has it all wrong.
The not-so-hidden assumption in Gingrich’s slur is that he’s talking about urban poverty and black and Hispanic kids. Actually, poverty is worse in rural areas than in cities or suburbs. Worse in Appalachia than in Chicago. More poor children are white than black.
Young Americans ages 16-19 experience unemployment rates as bad as those in Egypt before Tahrir Square. For the first time in 50 years, most young people ages 16-24 are not working. This isn’t because of child-labor laws. It’s because there are no jobs.
This is a national catastrophe. Young people without work lose ground that they may never make up. Worse, their dreams are dashed; their hopes crushed.
Rather than repealing child-labor laws and putting children under 16 to work, wouldn’t it make more sense to create jobs for those of legal age? Today, the Congressional Progressive Caucus will introduce its “American Dream” legislation, designed to help fulfill the pledge to make government the employer of last resort for young Americans and veterans. It calls for direct public service employment — 2.2 million jobs to start — in a jobs corps, an urban corps, a green corps, in subsidies to nonprofits and to small businesses to hire the young and our veterans. It pays for these programs with a range of tax and spending reforms — hiking taxes on millionaires, taxing Wall Street hyper-speculation, cutting subsidies to Big Oil, reducing wasteful spending on wars abroad and Cold War weapons at home.
Newt says he will put forth “extraordinarily radical proposals to fundamentally change the culture of poverty in America.”
But putting young children to work dates back to the satanic mills of the Victorian Age.
What the young need are jobs.
What America needs is someone who will challenge the entrenched interests and big money that now so distorts our politics. Gingrich offers, instead, a man who profits from those interests, while preying on, not praying for, the weak.
Rev. Jesse L. Jackson is founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.