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Gingrich's history gap

Editorial

Some of the GOP presidential candidates show their cluelessness when they attack historic reforms such as child labor laws.

November 22, 2011
  • Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks at Rivier College in Nashua, New Hampshire on Nov. 21. On that same day, he said, "It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods in trapping children? in child laws which are truly stupid." (Adam Hunger / Reuters)
Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. House of Representatives…

It isn't just that some of the candidates for the GOP presidential nomination occasionally seem divorced from modern reality; it's that they're determined to re-fight battles that most of us thought had ended roughly a century ago. A case in point is newly inaugurated front-runner Newt Gingrich, who in a talk Monday at Harvard University denigrated federal child labor laws that date back to the 1930s.

"It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods in trapping children … in child laws which are truly stupid," Gingrich said. "OK, you say to someone, 'You shouldn't go to work before you're 14, 16 years of age.' Fine. You're totally poor. You're in a school that is failing with a teacher that is failing. I tried for years to have a very simple model. Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school." Mr. Bumble from "Oliver Twist" could not have said it better.

If Gingrich were the only one invoking ancient legislative history, we'd dismiss it as an anomaly (he is, after all, a former history professor). But he's got company. Texas Gov. Rick Perry's book "Fed Up!" is a treatise on the ways our liberal great-grandparents destroyed America, starting with the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson at the height of the Progressive Era. Planned Parenthood, founded in the shadow of World War I by feminist icon Margaret Sanger, is a popular target among the GOP hopefuls, most of whom would like to pull its federal funding.

What characterizes the response to these historic reforms is cluelessness about the forces that created them. Planned Parenthood arose to help women escape poverty by helping them make their own reproductive decisions; its clinics anger modern conservatives because they perform abortions, but they also save women's lives by giving them an alternative to terminating their pregnancies in unsafe conditions. Perry romanticizes the 19th century laissez-faire era, back before the federal government stepped in to regulate such things as food safety or labor rights, while seemingly unaware that it was a time of violent class warfare between rich and poor. And surely there are few people besides Gingrich who want to return to the days when middle schoolers were forced to earn their own keep.

Child labor laws were enacted because children, who are easy to exploit, were once thrown into factory sweatshops instead of being sent to school. There is no surer way to create a permanent underclass than to fail to educate poor kids, which is why today they're not allowed to work during school hours and kids under 14 can't perform most forms of nonfarm paid labor. It's tough to do your homework when you're working as a janitor, Mr. ex-Speaker.

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