Gingrich’s laborious plan to save the youth of America

By Eric V. Edmonds
December 6, 2011

By Eric Edmonds

The opinions expressed are his own.


Republican Presidential frontrunner Newt Gingrich continues to insist that child labor laws in the U.S. are “truly stupid,” that the poor lack good work habits, and that the former would solve the latter. He hasn’t mentioned any specific policy changes, yet it’s clear that he doesn’t like the way things are done now, and that that he thinks America would be better off if kids worked more. If only the economics agreed.

Gingrich hasn’t been clear about what exactly he wants, but he seems to be advocating two complementary policies. First, he would like to see a reduction in the minimum age of employment. While campaigning in Cambridge, he said, “You go out and talk to people who are really successful in one generation. They all started their first job between 9 and 14 years of age.” Second, he wants to put poor children to work in their schools, because “really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits for working and have nobody around them who work.” Granted, if there really is no proclivity to work, it’s not clear how he will actually get these children to start working.

Nevertheless, let’s imagine Gingrich gets his wish. What would be the practical consequences of a reduction in the minimum age of employment in the U.S.? Most likely, nothing good.

The biggest hole in Gingrich’s plan is a simple one: adding more workers does not create new jobs. With 1,373,000 youths 16 to 19 currently looking for work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, adding even younger children to this pile would likely serve to increase unemployment or reduce unskilled wages further.

Already, 23.7 percent of youths ages 16-19 who are actively seeking employment are unemployed. Add 20.7 million children between 10-14 to the mix, and (assuming they chose to work at the same rate as children 16-19) we’d see nearly 7 million children competing for the same number of jobs that exist today. The economy wouldn’t grow, but by my estimation the national unemployment rate could rise to 13 percent when 7 million more potential workers compete for the same number of jobs.

Now suppose, as Gingrich does, that somehow these children could find work. Would they learn some valuable life lesson that puts them on a new path in life? The children of developing countries, where child labor is endemic, certainly haven’t. 40 percent of children work in Somalia, for example. Have these children taken the good work habits they learn as child laborers to boost their local economies? Have they lifted themselves out of poverty?

The issue is that workers that start unskilled stay unskilled. Especially if their education is suffering as a result. Working children do not learn skills that are going to help them to succeed in today’s technologically advanced global economy. How is learning to be an unskilled laborer at an early age going to help families in the long-run?

It is not. Implicit in Mr. Gingrich’s argument is that the act of working itself teaches some transferable skill that then makes the child laborer a better worker overall. We’ve seen what happens when successive generations of families need their children to work. They are unable to escape poverty.  Some of the best evidence on this comes from Brazil, where, according to two economists’ research, former child laborers are three times more likely to need their own children to work.

And what happens when some of these kids get enamored with having a job and drop out of school? The real earnings of high school drop-outs have been falling over time, and the gap between them and those with some post-high school education has been growing. The average annual earnings of a high school drop-out is now just above $20,000 per year, according to the Census. That is two-thirds as much as an individual who completes high school and one-third that of a person who completes college. While college graduates can expect their earnings to grow over time, the high school drop-out has no such hope. It is possible that it has never made more sense for American children to devote their attention to school.

The child labor laws enforced today have been around since the 1930s, which means the successful people that Gingrich has met on the road and is so enamored with worked in essentially the same legal environment.  Gingrich is nostalgic for a piece of America that hasn’t drastically changed.

Today’s child labor laws protect children from exploitation and risks that might be difficult for children and their caring parents to assess. But when the laws were first passed during the Great Depression, it was in part to lower the unemployment rate, helping older youths find work. Reversing these laws, then, would do just the inverse: not only endangering children, but also the economy. Instead, America’s leadership would be better off debating how to promote quality education, and make sure that the potential returns to that education are accessible to all hard-working Americans. Young or otherwise.

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich walks into Trump Towers for a meeting with real estate investor Donald Trump on 5th Avenue in New York December 5, 2011. REUTERS/Andrew Burton

5 comments

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Here in the Midwest over the last couple of years there has been a Republican push to loosen (or remove) the child labor laws. Similar to the Republican mantra that removing ‘regulation’ is important to let companies ‘get on with business’, this is just more of the same.

None will be content until the US is no different than any other poor 3rd world nation where there is lots of cheap labor (kids are great, you don’t have to pay them as much and they eat lots less and take up less space!) and the environment is ruined forever without those ‘pesky’ regulations. As an avid sci-fi fan, I find it frightening to see that some of the social ideas and directions that I read about years ago in science fiction are starting to be proposed by our current crop of Republicans. Unfortunately, the ideas are NOT the ones in which humans use advanced technology to the benefit of all mankind and improve the planet. No, these ideas are from the darker sci-fi books where an elite runs the entire planet and after completely destroying the viability of the ecosystem, they escape off-world to start anew leaving billions to die on the ruined planet which can no longer sustain them. Is this the Republican vision for the future?

Posted by MidwestVoice | Report as abusive

I believe that his intent is to break the cycle of poverty into which the majority of minority children find themselves born into. The out of wedlock birthrate nationally among African Americans exceeds seventy percent and in some precincts in New York more than eighty percent. That is not a political statement, but simply a statistical reality. Countless billions of dollars are being spent in an attempt to educate children who often reside in a household with no history of a live-in father or one that has experienced the rewards that can be achieved through personal growth and educational attainment. Forget the political rhetoric. Why don’t you want for those children exactly what would you want for your own offspring?

Posted by Micileen | Report as abusive

I worked at minimum wage back in 1960 or so for $1/hr. assembling instruments. With no experience I was happy to get an inside job assembling meters. I paid my rent, food and transportation for several months and got one, possibly two raises; being transferred to a drill press where I tapped case mounting bosses. The experience was a good one.

The minimum wage is so high today that the low-skill simple jobs that can be automated have been. Look around…almost all Clerks and a lot of Secretaries have been replaced now that low-level managers have computers. A lot of order-takers and shipping people are similarly unnecessary in the world of today. But automation of tasks is the real saver…robots don’t take breaks, get sick, have mental problems, drink, use drugs, get vacations or medical benefits, or get a pension.

The higher the minimum wage goes, the faster entry-level jobs and the valuable experience (and resolve to get an education for a “better” life) disappear.

What “poor kids” need is the availability of low paid internships that prepare them for “real” jobs and give them the understanding and perception necessary to keep such “real” jobs. If they want to work for a “head janitor” at school for low pay to help their family pay it’s bills AND for some extra tutoring in weak subjects, I think they would be far, far better off in the long run.

Unfortunately THEIR peers are certain to sabotage any honest desire or specific effort(s) to lift themselves out of the “poor” life. So long as education and work aren’t “cool”, their deadend peers set the governing agenda and a person can get killed going against that.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

@OneOfTheSheep…With inflation, that $1 in 1960 is worth about $7.65 today, coincidentally, the current federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour.

Sometimes, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”

Posted by smarcus | Report as abusive

@smarkus,

So? Back in 1960 Minimum wage jobs were plentiful. At today’s minimum wage, many have been automated, as I said.

What’s your point in opening YOUR mouth in this manner? Two dimensional comment in a three dimensional world.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive