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When you call yourself a "historian," you create the implication that you can speak authoritatively about, well, history. But last Friday, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich defied that common sense.

Speaking at one of America's top institutions of learning, Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Gingrich, who had earlier in the week bragged about being paid millions to be a "historian" for mortgage behemoth Freddie Mac, boldly declared that laws preventing child labor are "truly stupid."

In outlining a plan to fire janitorial staffs in public schools across the county and then hire poor children to clean the schools, Gingrich claimed that laws preventing poor kids from going to work "before you're 14, 16" are actually obstacles standing in the way of rescuing children who are "in a school that's failing with a teacher that's failing."

What "professor" Gingrich has overlooked is that there are historical reasons why America has child labor laws.

Most civilized countries have enacted child labor laws because history has proven that putting children into work situations at a very early age tends to exploit them, subject them to abuse, and endanger their education, rather than enhance it.

But you don't even need to delve deeply into a history lesson to find examples of how subjecting children to spending long hours of manual labor might not be the best way to improve their academic attainment. All you have to do is look at government policies that currently allow businesses to exploit child labor.

Child Labor Laws Need Strengthening

In America today, hundreds of thousands of children work in the agricultural industry due to a loophole that does not hold corporate agribusiness to restrictions on age and hour requirements that apply to all other enterprises.

According to a report from Human Rights Watch, child farmworkers as young as 12 years old often work 10 or more hours a day, five to seven days a week. Some start working part-time at age 6 or 7.
These children work under blazing sun or through intense rain, in close proximity to sharp blades and dangerous equipment, and with repeated exposure to harmful pesticides.

For far less pay than minimum wage, many of these children are made to work with inadequate food and water, without basic protective clothing like shoes and gloves, and little or no access to medical care or even toilets. Sometimes they're mistreated or beaten by an overseer if they don't maintain their "productivity."

Let's be clear that we're not talking about children working weekends on the family farm here to earn money for the prom. What we're talking about is a cost-effective cog in the big agriculture machine that provides fruits and vegetables to your grocery store.

And the consequences to these children are not good: Children who do agricultural work suffer fatalities at more than four times the rate of children working in other jobs. They also drop out of school at four times the national rate.

The Conservatives' War on Children

So obviously the only thing "truly stupid" about Gingrich's comment about child labor laws is the comment itself. And if we need to make any changes to child labor laws, I should be to toughen them -- especially as they apply to the agricultural industry -- not weaken them.

Gingrich has a reputation for making these sorts of outlandish statements believing that it make him appear "unconventional." "You're going to see from me extraordinarily radical proposals," he warns us.

But you'd be mistaken to dismiss his attitude as a "maverick" statement made by an "outsider." Notice for instance that although Gingrich is, according to most recent polls, the current frontrunner in the filed of candidates vying for the Republican party's nomination not a single one of his opponents, as of this writing, has denounced his position on child labor laws. So one can assume a Republican unified front on this issue?

In fact, the conservative push to eliminate protections for children is not limited to the presidential circuit. Witness another cruel stupidity -- this coming from Congress.

Pizza Is a Vegetable

At a time when child obesity has reached epidemic levels in America, our nation's lawmakers just passed legislation to exempt public school districts from limitations on how many starchy foods they are allowed to include in cafeteria meals, which are a mainstay, especially, in the diets of poor kids. One key to maximizing the starch quotient was to maintain the standard that classifies a slice of cheese pizza as a vegetable.

Politicians of all stripes were insisting the measure go through because current restrictions "cost too much." But there's a reason why leading food industry lobbyist for the likes of ConAgra Foods Inc. and Schwan Food Co. called this "an important victory." And it's got nothing to do with concerns for children.

In fact, at the same time lawmakers were doing the bidding of their corporate funders, a new study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that children between 12 and 19 years old performed poorly overall on a set of criteria for ideal cardiovascular health. "Diet in particular was a problem."

It's Not Just Conservatives

However, it's too easy to blame conservatives alone for the increasingly callous treatment of children in US policy making. Because American society as a whole is increasingly abusive to the youngest in our society on a systemic level.

From the outset, young children in the US are handicapped by a system that neglects their most basic needs. Nearly five years ago, before the onset of our current recession, UNICEF the U.S. ranks 20th out of 21 industrialized countries in child well-being. One doesn't have to imagine how much worse the condition of children has gotten.

More recently, a new analysis of data from Gallup found that one in four California families can't afford food for their kids.

As New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently lamented, we have done a "poor job" of taking care of our children. As evidence he points to America's near-bottom ranking on a "Social Justice” scale that analyzes metrics of basic fairness and equality among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. Two metrics that are especially striking are the US's low ranking for child poverty rate (bottom five) and expenditure on pre-primary education (bottom ten).

End Early Childhood Education?

Our nation's neglect of early childhood education is especially critical in light of the effects that schooling in the early years have on long-term success in adulthood. Another recent analysis, this one from the Pew Economic Mobility Project, notes that a study from France found that increasing the number of years of early childhood education from two to three increased monthly income of those individuals later in adulthood by almost 13 percent.

Yet funding for early childhood education in the US has been spiraling downward for years. In 2009-10, states spent $30 million less than in the previous year, giving $700 less per child than what was spent in 2001-2002 and enrolling only 26 percent of 4-year-olds nation wide.

From 2010-11, ten states eliminated all early childhood programs. And for 2011-12, Texas, Pennsylvania, California, New Jersey, North Carolina, Florida, Colorado, Michigan, Georgia, and Illinois are all making significant cuts to early childhood programs or eliminating them altogether.

Schools Favor Testing Over Teaching

Things don't necessarily get much better for children once they get into kindergarten and elementary school. If they are fortunate enough not to attend a school that isn't in a "shameful" state of disrepair, or attend classes that are packed with over 40 or 50 students per teacher, then they are still increasingly apt to encounter  an approach to education that is deeply hostile to their creativity, their motivation to learn, and their need for broad and diverse learning opportunities.

Due to the deeply entrenched and strictly enforced standards and accountability movement -- a darling among many of both Republican and Democratic political persuasions -- schools are increasingly restricting children's learning opportunities.

Because this approach to education places so much emphasis on how kids score on standardized tests of math and English language arts, many schools -- particularly in Florida -- that once may have offered a school band, a drama program, a school newspaper, or a television station, now frequently cut those programs to increase the focus on testing.

Just this week, there was yet another exampleof an elementary school, this one in Dallas, withholding opportunities for kids to learn science and social studies in order to focus exclusively on math and reading scores that would earn the school an "exemplary" rating.

Unbeknownst to parents, "the students learned only math and reading for most of the school year, while teachers were pressured to fabricate grades for science, social studies and enrichment courses like music. Some of the grades were given by teachers who had never taught the subjects."

These are not isolated incidents. In states as large as California, significant percentages of elementary teachers report that "they spend no more than one hour on science instruction per week," and "districts report that they have no staff members dedicated to elementary science."

'Extreme' Is Now Mainstream

Of course, many who are pushing policies that are harmful to children claim to be actually acting in children's interests. Many who want to cut government regulations protecting children and cut funding children's education say they are doing it so that future generations aren't saddled with massive government deficits. And those who press a "reform" agenda in education focused on "accountability" for math and reading test scores insist that it's all in the interest of making sure children achieve "measured progress."

These are nonsense arguments. What is hurtful to children today is even worse for their future, because the abuses harm their development and hence their capacities to take on whatever challenges the future may bring -- balanced budget or no.

So say what you will about "crazy Newt." But keep in mind that the extreme positions he and his fellow Republicans hold on the treatment of children are in fact becoming more mainstream all the time. If you doubt this at all, ask young people themselves.

Now that the generation that grew up with these increasingly punitive policies toward children is old enough to speak out with force, is it any wonder that you see many of them at the frontlines of expanding street protests in the Occupy Wall Street movement?

But then, you see how we're dealing with that . . .

John Pike
[AUTHOR DISCLOSURE: Human Rights Watch is a client of mine.]
Follow me on Twitter: @jeffbcdm

Originally posted to jeff bryant on Tue Nov 22, 2011 at 07:15 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Those standardized tests are such (16+ / 0-)

    a f*cking joke. I know people who get almost perfect scores on them, but have no idea where Iraq (or France) is, don't know how the government works, or hell, how to even use math in a way that isn't a problem on a test! The government cuts education even further, and people are surprised college aged kids are in the streets, with an education system and society in general like this? I try to be an optimistic person, but sometimes I can't. Great diary, tipped and rec'd.

    On ne revendiquera rien, on ne demandera rien. On prendra, on occupera.

    by bozepravde15 on Tue Nov 22, 2011 at 08:58:31 AM PST

  •  History is more (12+ / 0-)

    than just talking about the past and putting  the label history on it. History requires an understanding of past events, the context in which these events happened, the forces leading up to them, and the consequences of the events. Too often people who talk history--both conservatives and progressives--have little understanding of what the actual discipline of history involves.

    Thanks for posting.

  •  Newt longs for the good ol' days (12+ / 0-)

    of the 19th century when factories could do whatever they wanted, people worked 12 hour shifts for pittance, there was no FDA or EPA to protect consumers from pollution and unsafe food, employers could lock workers in with no safety exits in an emergency (Triangle Shirtwaist Fire), children worked long hours, and those who couldn't hack it went into workhouses. Yup, those wee happy times in his eyes.

    The last time we mixed religion and politics people got burned at the stake.

    by irishwitch on Tue Nov 22, 2011 at 10:31:24 AM PST

  •  Not content to make the rest of us work till we (5+ / 0-)

    die, the GOP wants to make sure our children start working as soon as they can sweep and mop.  Right to life of slavery party.

  •  It's shocking that after all the gains we've made (6+ / 0-)

    there are still people who would like to go back to the days of child labor and poor houses.  

    Thank you so much for this very well thought out piece.  It really brings into focus just how much damage we are doing to our children and our society.

  •  Great Diary (7+ / 0-)

    I've been really frustrated with the commentary about this, because so much of it has simply been to express outrage over what Gingrich said without putting it in its proper context.  You've done exactly that.  

    This is not about one stupid comment. It's about how we see the purposes of government.  Is it supposed to uphold 'the market' and enrich the already rich, or provide protection and opportunity for all.  I say the latter, which means expanding child labor protections and much more.  But that requires something more substantive than just saying that Newt is extreme.

    Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.

    by David Kaib on Tue Nov 22, 2011 at 01:29:35 PM PST

  •  Thank you for this diary. Children need all adults (3+ / 0-)

    who care about them to stand up for them and speak out at every opportunity. We need to make sure children and young adults can envision a future of hope.

    It's good that you went into the issues in depth. I didn't think about it at first, but just focusing on what Gingrich said doesn't move us forward.

    ...if only animals could write...

    by Jinnia on Tue Nov 22, 2011 at 01:54:56 PM PST

    •  Thanks so much for this comment (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      historys mysteries

      Really appreciate your thoughtfulness.

    •  We should also all listen to children more (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      jeff bryant

      If adults would just take children more seriously, we would not likely have so many cases of pediphilia.  It seems that often these types of child abuse don't get discovered for decades after the fact, and this means that many times they never get discovered.

      The more we all treat children as objects to be used for political advantage, the more we will be looking the other way when children are being hurt.

      In our culture children have been taught to be afraid of adult authority to the point that they won't tell about abuse.  They effectively have no rights as long as we keep them at arms length.

      "Trust only those who doubt" Lu Xun

      by LookingUp on Tue Nov 22, 2011 at 04:44:08 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  "innocent children" to the R-Wing theocrats means (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    historys mysteries

    "children who are not born yet." The born are not "innocent " and therefore are ripe for exploitation.  I can't tell you how much I hate these people.

    As offensive as our adversaries can be, it is always the people on our own side who drive us crazy.

    by Mayfly on Tue Nov 22, 2011 at 02:52:38 PM PST

  •  Test scores (6+ / 0-)

    So I had my daughter's Parent/Teacher conference recently. One of the first thing her teacher and challenge teacher present to my wife and I are her "goals" for the year. Both "goals" - which were written by my daughter - were about what standardized test score she would rise to by the end of the year. They thought they were fine goals because my daughter is doing so well and significantly above nation, state and local averages.

    I didn't think so.

    I asked my daughter, who was there, why she chose this number as opposed to say another random number. I asked both teachers what she would learn from each goal, what she was going to do to improve, and what she would focus on. I asked how that number corresponded to real learning. What was she going to learn. How would that spark her interest in science or math or technology.

    Not many answers where had. I think I made them uncomfortable. I was asking about her learning. They wanted to talk about how well she tested.

    Sad part is, I remember when teachers spoke first and foremost about inspiring learning and what a child would actually do in class. Now my own daughter is spending instructional time writing goals about test scores rather than her learning.

    Imagination is more important than knowledge. Albert Einstein

    by michael in chicago on Tue Nov 22, 2011 at 03:56:43 PM PST

    •  My god (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Kamakhya, kyril

      So this is what we've come to:

      I remember when teachers spoke first and foremost about inspiring learning and what a child would actually do in class. Now my own daughter is spending instructional time writing goals about test scores rather than her learning.

      What can we do, short of widespread civil disobedience, to turn this around? (That's a rhetorical question.)
      •  we need to get away from testing, and back to (0+ / 0-)

        teaching....interestingly enough...guess who runs the companies that create many of the standardized tests?
        The Bush family (Jeb and bros).  If the laws focus on testing over teaching, and create teacher incentives/evaluations based on testing...who PROFITS from this?  the test, money, money....
        NOT the kids, nor the teachers, nor families.

        If you do a search, I believe you will come upon some other diaries here at KOS that cover this subject.

        I believe teachers are already being trained very well, the system is broken.
        Re-fcusing on teaching (and portfolio assessments) vs testing, including families in the learning process, funding and equalizing educational opportunities, reducing class size, providing early education, the arts, and quality after school activities as well as apprenticeship opportunities for work-force bound students will all help to create better overall ed for our kids.  

  •  Stalinizing American Education: culture of cruelty (0+ / 0-)

    What are we doing to our children? I'd like to direct you to this provocative article where Baines compares the current trends in the edu-reform movement with Stalin's edu-propaganda mandates.

    Here are a couple of excerpts
    Stalinizing American Education
    by Lawrence Baines — 2011
    The similarities between contemporary American educational reform and Soviet educational reform of the 1930s are as striking as they are discomfiting.

    Trend 4: Stronger teacher accountability, less teacher autonomy
    Both Secretary of Education Duncan and President Obama praised the recent firing of the entire teaching staff at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island. True, test scores at the school were far from stellar, but absenteeism and misbehavior were down and graduation rates were up, no small feat for a school located in one of the poorest areas of the state. Below is a table that compares the achievement of students at Central Falls High School, again, located in one of the poorest parts of Rhode Island, with that of Barrington High School, a school located in one of the richest areas of Rhode Island, over the past two years.
    (the table will not copy into this comment! sorry but keep reading, please)

    The teachers from which school were fired?
    Perhaps inspired by the plaudits from the White House for firing teachers, Teach for America alumna and ex-superintendent of Washington, D.C. schools Michelle Rhee fired 6% of her district’s teachers for not sufficiently raising student achievement. Perhaps the fired teachers in D.C. also happened to work with the most disadvantaged children in the poorest neighborhoods.
    Increasingly, teachers in urban schools are alternatively certified brand new graduates from “somewhere else,” who were trained in quick-and-easy, non-university programs. With the enthusiastic support of Secretary of Education Duncan, alternative certification continues to gain momentum across the country.

  •  Actually (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Nina Katarina
    Most civilized countries have enacted child labor laws because history has proven that putting children into work situations at a very early age tends to exploit them, subject them to abuse, and endanger their education, rather than enhance it.

    while this is theoretically the reasoning why child labor laws are good, in fact, much of the support for actually ending child labor in the West came because children take jobs from adult workers and do them for less money.

    Labor and the union movement are the reasons why we have child labor laws. And labor and the union movement are the reasons why Republicans want to dismantle those laws. It would be nice if we could reason against them based on a "think of the children" justification, but that's not going to work any better than it's worked to end child labor in e.g. Indonesia.

    The truth is that most people don't actually care that much about other people's children. The right uses "think of the children" emotional arguments to whitewash censorship and control initiatives - don't be fooled into thinking that they're actually motivated by those arguments.

    "Let’s just move on, treat everybody with firmness, fairness, dignity, compassion and respect. Let’s be Marines." - Sgt. Maj Michael Barrett on DADT repeal

    by kyril on Wed Nov 23, 2011 at 06:07:32 AM PST

    •  You're right about this: (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      kyril, David Kaib
      Labor and the union movement are the reasons why we have child labor laws.

      But I'm not completely ready to concede this:
      The truth is that most people don't actually care that much about other people's children.

      Sure it's true that "the right" is hard-hearted about the well being of kids, but "the right" is not "most people." And they generally are completely above convincing. The thing we on the progressive side have to do is attack policies -- especially those supported by "the left" -- that damage children on the basis of our values. The demise of the right will take care of itself.

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