Three Cheers for Child Labor

Published December 2, 2011

Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has suggested relaxing child labor laws to allow students to earn money by cleaning their schools – one of his many novel proposals that critique calcified elements of the government-constrained U.S. economy.

The predictable, hysterical reaction to his ideas explains why the nation’s once-limber economy has stiffened with the equivalent of arthritis. On CNN’s opinions page, L.Z. Granderson called Mr. Gingrich a “Scrooge … the kind of guy who would see you heading toward the elevator with bags in your hand and would stand back and let the doors close in your face.” John Nichols at theNation accuses Mr. Gingrich of wanting to bring back “robber barons” and attempting to take the country away from “the essentials of modern society.” The nation’s largest public-service employees union wrote a letter in Mr. Gingrich’s name to 9-year-old “Jenny”: “I fired your mom and put you to work to let you ‘rise.’ Hope you don’t miss your house, food and health care too much.”

To be sure, there are some obvious reasons to question Mr. Gingrich’s suggestion that schools ax their unionized janitors and replace them with students. In the first place, a president ought to have nothing to do with implementing a national school janitor policy. The federal government has no such authority under the Constitution or any other law, much less within the bounds of common sense.

Second, the idea includes some serious logistical problems, such as how to get around union contracts. Also, children shouldn’t be handling strong chemicals or scooting around in the ductwork (although they will happily do so for a prank without the promise of pay).

But there are some equally important reasons why schools should be allowed (although not forced by the federal government) to consider some version of Mr. Gingrich’s idea and pay high school or middle school students to sweep and clean bathrooms or wash dishes in the cafeteria: the dignity engendered by performing hard work, the importance of learning responsibility young and the centrality of equal opportunity to a thriving economy.

In his autobiography, the educator and writer Booker T. Washington details the difficult circumstances that shaped his admirable character. The son of a slave woman and a white man, Washington worked in coal and salt mines and earned his acceptance into the Hampton Institute after passing a strange test: cleaning and dusting the admitting teacher’s schoolroom. He vigorously dusted, swept and wiped three times, he writes, and when the teacher could not find a speck with her handkerchief, she admitted him to the school. Washington dedicated his talents and the rest of his hardworking life to advancing former slaves like himself.

No one wants to return to an era when children would work in salt mines and former slaves would have to sweep floors to gain access to an education. But only great fools can deny that U.S. schoolchildren, like their elders, have begun to abandon the nation’s traditional respect for earning both an education and one’s bread. Automatic reactions such as those cast at Mr. Gingrich’s idea exemplify and perpetuate a culture of conceited people to whom sweeping the floor is an indignity to be tolerated only by demanding disproportionate pay for it and discriminating against groups of nimble youngsters who could earn a lifelong benefit from a stint of menial, entry-level labor.

Booker T. Washington certainly benefited from the demand for good, hard work, and so could today’s children, who are, after all, tomorrow’s adults.

Joy Pullmann is managing editor of School Reform News and a research fellow for education policy at the Heartland Institute.