Sunday, December 11, 2011

With a Heavy Heart I Write to Defend Child Labor Laws

The reason I am sad is that it seems child labor laws in our country NEED defending. It appears that Newt Gingrich's cynical idea of striking down those laws is actually gaining some traction. This prompts feel I have to respond and try to explain why those laws must not be diluted, much less repealed. To my Facebook friends, I am just trying to explain what I tried to say there about child labor. Here goes:

I find it distressing to feel the need to explain why I think child labor laws should not be repealed in our country. To me, it is like having to explain why laws against fraud or theft should not be repealed. But we have a presidential candidate who says child labor laws are outmoded and should be eliminated. This is a verbatim quotation from Newt Gingrich’s description of his idea: “"It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children in, first of all, child laws, which are truly stupid," said the former House speaker, according to CNN. "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. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools, they'd begin the process of rising."

Now, why is this a bad idea?
• Kids can already work at age 14. At the age of 11 they can have paper routes. They can also do agricultural work. So Gingrich seems to mean to “emancipate” younger kids than 14, or in the exceptions, the age of 11. Is this really what we want?
• Picture the end of a school day. The kids with parents who can provide for them welcome the bell. They are off for scout meetings, music lessons, soccer or softball or whatever sport they enjoy. If they are lucky, they are off for a little goofing off in the back yard before it’s homework. The other kids, the poor kids, report to a “master janitor.” They are in for several hours of cleaning up after their more affluent peers. No down time for them! No after school programs, computer clubs like the one I used to sponsor, or boys and girls clubs which now often serve kids regardless of income. No tutorials or other extra help offered after school. After all they have to work, right? THEN for all, there IS HOMEWORK after supper. Who will have the energy and wherewithal to do a good job on it?
• Oh yes, and maybe they can work in libraries. Of course. Because all librarians do is stamp books and then put them on their shelves. Those books get evaluated, selected, budgeted, acquired, processed, and promoted by… well by whom? And who teaches kids how to navigate in the sea of digital information in which we all flounder today? Far too few people know what a teacher-librarian does. To say KIDS could take on the job of teacher-librarian or, for that matter for custodian, is demeaning to the adults who work hard to do the best for the kids at their schools.
• If you don’t think this will result in a level of classism that is far more pronounced to what already exists in public schools, you are na├»ve. What is to stop the rich kids from purposely creating extra work for the poor kids? This is a likely and sad by-product.
• And what to the “rich kids” learn? They learn that there is an underclass that serves them, even from the earliest age.

Does this make me a liberal wingnut who wants to enable the poor to remain lazy and shiftless? I don’t think so. First of all, to say that poor people are in that state due to their own laziness is a cruel and cynical lie. Many people are out of work today due to our economy, remember? And many others are under-employed. I worked with kids in public schools for 25 years and I do not recall ever specifically remember knowing of a family of welfare cheaters. At the same time I knew plenty of poor kids and their parents.

OK so why am I against having kids work in schools and libraries? Well I am not, of course! As a classroom teacher I had student assistants at the junior high where I worked in Spring Branch. I have followed their progress into their adult lives. They were more than students to me, they were my special kids. The same held true when I was a junior high librarian. I was lucky enough to work in a school, York Junior High in Conroe ISD, TX, where I had 2-3 library assistants every period. At York, you had to prove you were worthy of being a student assistant. It was an honor. I interviewed my future helpers, who were top students and great kids. They were the ones who maintained our shelves and they were proud and diligent workers. Beyond that I had a library club. I started it in the first days of my new library job. We named it TLC, The Library Club. These were also kids who wanted to help in the library. They came in before and after school and during lunch. Further, I always asked to work with hearing disabled kids. They would come in with their aides and work. There were other kids working in our school in the counselor’s office, nurse’s office, and administrators’ offices. Anyone who does not know that kids daily perform valuable work in schools right now every day has not spent much time in a public school to see how it really works. But it’s not for pay and it should not be.

Another thing that was mentioned in the Facebook exchange was that we adults worked as kids and it didn’t hurt us a bit. Well, right. I worked in my family business from age 12. We all pitched in, with Mom and Dad working long hours in the kitchen after supper to crank out the documents, abstracts, for our title business…and I do mean cranking out. They used a manual mimeograph machine. We kids would clean the kitchen and help with other chores, As soon as I could type, I was working in the office. BUT I was also in scouts, the band, the pep squad, and clubs. If I had a big assignment due, I didn’t have to work. School always came first. Surely people can see the difference between this and the situations that will rise from the repeal of child labor laws?

The notion of repealing child labor laws is horrifying to me. If people really think this is OK, it means our country has sunk to a lower level than I ever imagined. It took years of hard work to enact these laws. Before that, children were terribly exploited. And by the way, kids are still badly exploited today, especially in our growing fields. To go back to the pre-Depression days when kids were widely employed in factories is not a possibility I ever dreamed would be presented by a political candidate. To know it is gaining some traction literally hurts my heart.

1 comment:

  1. Very well said. You presented your reasoning very clearly.