Newt Gingrich is doubling down on what began as a bizarre plank of his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination: putting poor children to work. On Monday, Gingrich followed in his fellow candidates’ footsteps by meeting with Donald Trump, and in a press conference afterward, announced a new program to make poor inner-city children in New York apprentices.
Trump gave some vague facts about the program, with little indication of what it would actually entail: “[Newt] did mention if I could do something for some of the kids in very, very poor schools throughout the city, I thought it was a great idea. We call it an apprenticeship and we all know about the apprentice. We’re going to be picking ten young wonderful children and we’re going to make them apprentices. We’re going to have fun with it. It will be something that will prove results. I thought it was a great idea. It was Newt’s idea.”
Over the last few weeks, Gingrich has drawn both praise and scorn for his support of rolling back some child labor so that poor children can work. Last week in Iowa, Gingrich explained that poor children had no opportunity to learn a work ethic in their communities, and that they could be paid to be, for example, assistant janitors in their schools. “They have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash’-unless it’s illegal,” Gingrich explained.
At the press conference, Newt reiterated this point, framing it as a choice between welfare and work: “I think that the issue is food stamps versus paychecks. Every state in the country will be in play and I intend to run as the paycheck candidate.” He continued, implying that what is holding poor children back is a poor work ethic:
“We need to work very hard to help poor children in poor neighborhoods acquire opportunities to work and I have asked him to take one of the poorer schools in new york and basically offer at least ten apprenticeships to kids from that school to get them into the world of work and get them into an opportunity to earn money and get them into the habit of showing up and realizing that effort gets rewarded and that America is all about the work ethic.”
This kind of rhetoric is scorned on the left but is very appealing to audiences on the right. Relaxing labor laws appeals to the anti-regulation, libertarian leanings of many conservatives. Moreover, it reiterates the classic conservative argument that welfare harms the poor by making them lazy — a key tenet of welfare reform in the 1990s, of which Newt often boasts.
Today, New Hampshire’s Union Leader, which endorsed Gingrich in November, joined other conservatives commentators who approve of Gingrich’s ‘put poor kids to work’ plan, defending it in their editorial pages: “Gingrich is only talking about putting common sense back into the child labor laws so minors can learn work habits that will serve them later in life. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
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Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.