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 delve deeply into history lesson to find example of how subjecting children to spending long hours 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 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 arepacked 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 example of 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 . . .
[AUTHOR DISCLOSURE: Human Rights Watch is a client of mine.]