I Can Relate, Mr. Gingrich. (But here’s the trouble of starting work at thirteen.)

“Put those lazy low-income kids to work!”

Are American families living in poverty? We could end the cycle easily by teaching poor people’s kids a thing or two about work ethic and the value of a hard-earned dollar – because being poor has nothing to do with racial or social inequality or a floundering economy: it’s about a lousy work ethic and a culture of government reliance.

So argues former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in his fiery, primary-winning performance at the Republican Presidential candidates’ South Carolina debate last week. We can fix the lives of kids on food stamps by hiring them as school janitors when they’re as young as twelve.

Gingrich drives his righteous view home in the debate, using New York City as an example, because of its criminally expensive janitors’ union. Fire the janitors, he says: for every janitor booted, a school could hire thirty-seven kids to do the cleaning.

The kids would learn responsibility, job skills, a good work ethic, and receive an early education in the satisfaction of getting your own paycheck and managing your own money, instead of expecting government handouts.

Plus, as Gingrich is sure to emphasize, when you’re poor, money is good. These kids need money as much as they need a lesson in pulling themselves up by the bootstraps. The only people who hate the idea of earning money (besides, apparently, America’s poor) – are America’s elite. This is a golden chance for kids to improve their lives.

Author 3rd row from front, four kids from the right. Age at which Gingrich recommends becoming a janitor.

I have a lot of questions.

Does Gingrich believe, as he seems to imply, that janitorial work for kids would make a difference in a poor family’s financial situation? If adult parents can’t keep their families out of poverty, could twelve or thirteen-year-olds’ working after school provide the solution, at Gingrich’s apparently proposed rate of 1/37th the pay of a professional janitor?

Gingrich is sure to point out that he’s not advocating anything he wouldn’t encourage his own kids to do. He insists that his own daughter had a janitorial job at her church at age thirteen, and that she enjoyed it and benefited enormously from it. But is this situation comparable to that of America’s poor children? Surely Gingrich’s child did not work out of necessity or face hunger at home. There is a big difference between working for the experience, or for a little of your own spending money, and working as a matter of survival.

Did not have to aid poverty-stricken family.

If adolescent janitors could indeed improve the finances of their destitute families, does that mean they should? Is that an appropriate pressure for a child or teenager?

If a school were to adopt Gingrich’s plan, firing its janitor and arranging a rotation of kids, would all the students be required to participate, or only those who had the initiative to volunteer? If nobody volunteered (on the off-chance that scrubbing the toilets after school does not appeal to the kids), would certain children be forced or cajoled into the program based on their parents’ income level or other factors? If poor children became the janitors while more affluent children headed off to drama club and soccer practice, would this not create even more income-based divisions among our young people?

What activities would the working children be missing or minimizing due to their new responsibilities? Would their homework or grades suffer? Would it be healthy for children to see their school as a workplace?

Plus, who would train and supervise these student staffers? Would teachers just add this onto their current duties? I’m sure teachers and school administrators wouldn’t mind staying a few extra hours every day to teach kids how to wax the floors and make sure the kids do it properly.

And isn’t it more than a bit demeaning to janitors, declaring that a bunch of kids could easily do the job at a fraction of the pay? As at least one writer has pointed out, janitors are professionals who routinely work with dangerous equipment and chemicals. Janitorial work isn’t just taking out the trash and sweeping the hallway. Yes, janitorial work is not glamorous, but unlike politicians, janitors are crucial to society.  It seems to me that by declaring janitorial work as appropriate for the nation’s children, Gingrich is denigrating those who work these necessary but already under-appreciated jobs. How does this attitude encourage a good work ethic?

Does using this stuff safely require any training or expertise?

All these questions, for me, point to the value of letting kids be kids, instead of pushing them into a role of the adult realm, especially when this role would fall disproportionately on low-income children.

But I have to tell you the whole truth.  Gingrich’s proposal mirrors my own childhood – a childhood that always made me and my parents proud.

Perhaps it’s genetic. One of the oldest pictures I’ve seen of my grandfather shows him in his little short pants, pulling a toy wagon full of dirt. Before he turned five, he had started his own business: digging up violets, tenderly putting them into his wagon, and pacing around the neighborhood to sell them. Today, in his mid-eighties, after 25 years as the mayor of his town, Papa could fill an entire room with congressional citations and lifetime achievement award plaques (though he’s modest and tasteful and only displays a few of the handsomest ones).

Growing up in my own family, my own parents’ stellar work ethic was an early example. Allowances were never just doled out – they were earned through assigned chores. I have a very clear memory of the family dinner-time when my parents said it was time for me to get a job.  I was thirteen. My family wasn’t rich and we weren’t poor either. We didn’t need the extra income – this was about life lessons.

Given my love of animals, my parents got me a chance to start working for the owner of the kennel where our own dogs stayed while we vacationed. In retrospect, I’m not sure this arrangement was strictly legal, but I was an unusually dependable kid.

I worked there for the next six years or so. Every summer, as a teenager, I’d sock away a few thousand bucks working for $10/hour.

Janitorial? I know of what I speak: I mopped the floor and washed dog bowls by the hundreds, Cloroxed and vacuumed and scrubbed. I also bathed dogs and dealt with customers. Looking back, I realize I had an extraordinary amount of responsibility for a teenager: running the place on my own when my boss was out of town, personally handling toothy, muscular canines which were larger than I was, and administering medication to clients’ animals. As an added benefit, kennels are busiest precisely when everyone is on vacation, so I never had weekends, summers or holidays off: on Christmas or 4th of July, just as everyone else was having some pie or getting out the bottle-rockets, I was going to work.

The author in high school. Blond hair and purple outfit near the left. By this time I’d been working for about five years.

Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I worked part-time all throughout high school and college at various jobs and internships, in addition to full-time classes (I also thought the world would end if I got anything below an A+), and somehow found time to participate in a couple theater productions each year, acting, directing or stage managing. Did I mention becoming co-editor of both my high school and college newspapers?

Author in college, first row on the left (forgive the pants). Almost forgot, I was on the Student Orientation Committee too (future husband at left).

I had work ethic in spades. In fact, I hardly know what to do with myself if I’m not working. Whenever I stop, I’m inundated with guilt and anxiety.

Before I began freelancing full-time, I had a full-time job in the tourism industry.

I piled on the overtime for three years, especially when I wasn’t feeling well (keeping busy is the only strategy I ever had to cope with a chronic illness). I routinely worked shifts of fifteen hours or more, outside in all weathers, in addition to freelance work on my “days off”.

I ignored signs that it was too much: month-long bouts of laryngitis, agonizing back spasms, coming home from work at 3am. Once I ignored an infection through an 18-hour shift, and landed in the ER the next day.

It wasn’t entirely my fault: my boss would threaten to dock our hours (and therefore our pay) if we took weekends off or failed to work overtime (he referred to this as an “incentive” to us, rather than a punishment). There were no paid vacations or sick days. Our manager would curse about customers in the office and got drunk onsite with employees on a regular basis. Staffers were routinely fired without warning.

At staff meetings, I suggested that better policies were needed.  He subsequently fired me for my “negative attitude”.

This month marks the first year I’ve been freelancing full-time.

Has my work ethic benefited me? Perhaps contrary to Newt’s expectations, I don’t have much money. I don’t think anyone can fault my productivity in this matter: it just happens that writing isn’t always the most lucrative career today, and it takes a lot of time to develop and promote. Sometimes my parents help me to meet my outrageous health insurance payments. But generally, I can pay my bills.

Especially in a world where endless chats and games and movies are available at a single touch, I’m grateful for the habit that pushes me to work without a boss or manager telling me what to do and when to do it. Would I be capable of this, had such commitment and responsibility not been ingrained in me at such a young age? The US needs individuals with the wits and the drive to create their own jobs.

On the other hand, the downside to my mindset is that I am almost incapable of relaxing.

When I visit my parents or go on vacation, I am often engulfed by feelings of anxious uselessness, pacing around the house.  I work on unassigned essays, set up meetings, and scrub the kitchen.

In retrospect, I’m also concerned that perhaps going to work so young cultivated in me an over-developed sense of responsibility that lacked an adult’s capacity to question or resist unfair treatment. As I remember my past job, there is something unpalatably naïve and childlike in my long-term acceptance of my former working conditions, and my boss’s behavior.

The question had actually never even occurred to me until I heard Gingrich in the debate: should I have had so much professional responsibility as an adolescent? Did a premature obsession with work set me up for an unbalanced lifestyle and an embarrassing inability to see if I am being treated unfairly? Or is it merely my own personality, regardless of my experiences, that has made me the woman I am today?

Throughout my teens, most of my friends spent their summers vacationing or hanging out by the pool.  During my college summers, while I often worked all day at one job and then left for a second one in the evening, my friends backpacked through Europe. Nowadays, most of the teenagers (heck, even some of the twenty-somethings) I know have never had a job, and I think some part-time responsibilities would set them up nicely for the real world. I think it’s a problem when people finish college without any job experience at all.

But despite Gingrich’s prescription for prosperity and work ethic, and my own experience, I don’t want our middle or junior-high-schoolers joining the nation’s janitorial staff, or any kind of staff. The modern school day – not to mention homework and extracurriculars – is a job in itself. Life lessons should entail more than the value of a dollar and the evils of welfare. Even if my own problems have nothing to do with the fact that someone handed me the mop when I was thirteen, surely there’s a better recipe for American success than hiring our children.

I would love to hear from you on this issue. Are you a teacher, a janitor, or a parent? Did you start working early or late? How did it affect you? What do you think about the value of jobs for adolescents?

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2 Comments

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  1. I started working at 16, but would have probably started earlier if I could have, because, well, I wanted some spending money. Knowing what I know now, I’d say I developed a work ethic, learned some life lessons, but had I realized then that work would constitute the rest of my life, I would have been a bum, haha.

    I have a 13-year old now and her extent of work has been one babysitting gig and refereeing some soccer games (only when she wants to). So I’d have to say that it’s good for them only in teaching them the value of work and money. I’d never force a 13-year old to work, but there’s nothing wrong with some money-making opportunities that might arise. I think it’s definitely too young to have a “real” job. Kids need to be kids while they can. I don’t see any real connection between kids working and welfare, though. Good post!

    • Thanks – glad you enjoyed and thanks for sharing your experience. I would say spending money didn’t much enter into for me – more the sense that my family expected me to start working, so they must be right. I already had some spending money because I began babysitting pretty early too, but what I forgot to mention in the actual post is that I disliked babysitting, and saw a real job as an excuse to turn down babysitting gigs (especially when I was younger, it never occurred to me that I could say no to anything that anyone asked/expected of me, just because I wanted to).

      You are right that kids need to be to kids. I think that in my case, working too much too early, I didn’t have as much time to develop/define myself in other ways as a teenager, and now I define myself almost totally by my work, which isn’t healthy.

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