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Postscript: Defending laws on child labor

A reader writes to support Newt Gingrich's call to loosen child labor laws, but The Times' editorial board couldn't disagree more.

November 26, 2011
  • Newly annointed GOP frontrunner Newt Gingrich lamented that child labor laws unfairly keep children in poor neighborhoods from working as school janitors. (Cheryl Senter / Associated Press)
Newly annointed GOP frontrunner Newt Gingrich lamented that child labor…

The Times' Nov. 23 editorial, "Clueless candidates," which criticized Newt Gingrich for his call to loosen child labor laws and allow kids to work as janitors at their schools, prompted reader Mike Gallagher to write the following defense of the former House speaker's proposal:

"I can only assume that the editor did not work as a child, unlike the children of most small-business owners. I've never known a working kid who didn't have time for homework, so long as there wasn't a long transportation requirement.

"The idea that a kid might spend a limited number of hours working at the local school if they wished to do so would not be a homework burden, as you naively suggest. A person's first job positively reinforces more work habits than I can list here, which also has positive academic benefits.

"Gingrich's proposal isn't about exploiting children; it is about opportunity and positive reinforcement for kids who choose to have a part-time job."

Editorial writer Dan Turner responds:

When Gingrich spoke out against child labor laws, he wasn't very specific about which ones he meant, but he seemed to be targeting two requirements: one that forbids kids under 14 from working except in certain exempted jobs such as theatrical performance, newspaper delivery or laboring on a family farm, and one that bars children under 16 from working during school hours.

Presumably, then, Gingrich either wants kids under 16 to be able to work as janitors at their schools during hours when their fellow students are in class, or he wants kids under 14 to have the option to work as janitors after school. Neither is a good idea.

I also saw some letters from readers whose ancestors or relatives, brought up before these laws were passed in the 1930s, learned a strong work ethic and grew up to be successful adults despite being forced to support their families at a very young age. They are to be commended, but the laws against child labor were enacted not only because many children were being exploited by being forced into backbreaking, low-paying jobs, but because the demands of work prevented them from going to school or having time to study.

Our editorial board strongly believes that all children, even those with poor parents, have a right to be educated. Take this away and you get a permanent underclass whose children have little chance to improve themselves and realize the American dream.

We don't object to teenagers getting jobs, or even

to schools hiring them as janitors. But they can do this under existing labor laws; the changes Gingrich seems to be demanding would be exploitative and unfair.

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