Newt Gingrich’s Attack on Poor Children: A Poor Family’s Perspective

Over the past two weeks I’ve noticed a lot of social media anger and teasing directed towards Rick Perry’s recent “Strong” commercial wherein he gripes about gays being able to serve openly in the military but children not being allowed to pray publicly in school.  Around the same time another Republican made an equally prejudice and cruel comment regarding “really poor children, in really poor neighborhoods [who] have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works”, the “stupidity” of child labor laws, and the idea that poor children should become janitors in their schools. I’m surprised that Newt Gingrich’s speech hasn’t created as strong of an outrage considering how completely insensitive and ridiculous the speech was. When I first heard quotes from his speech on NPR, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Was it a joke? How could somebody be so thoughtless and downright mean?

I took particular offense to Gingrich’s speech because I came from what one could call a poor family. I lived with a single mother who made poverty level income. We qualified for aid and food stamps, but we were able to scrape by without having to tap into the system thanks to the love and support of our family. I did not come from the “poor neighborhoods” that Newt speaks of. It’s fair to say that Newt was very blatantly insinuating children of non-white decent. I came from a working middle class neighborhood. My mother worked for her mother. Besides having no money, I did have advantages that some children from low income families did not have. All in all, I had a very wonderful childhood within our economic confines, but it could have been a very different story if we weren’t so lucky.

My mother didn’t plan on making $18,000 a year. Like many people in the late 1960’s, she worked for the family business, which doesn’t always pay well. What she got in return of little pay was the ability to take off whatever time she needed to pick me up from school and go to my sports games and concerts; to take off whatever time she needed in lieu of my father who had left us. My Mom didn’t plan on going to community college, but rather wanted to go to FIT which was promptly shot down by her guidance counselor and family in 1967. My mother didn’t plan on my father leaving her. Her grand vision of family quickly crumbled after I was born and my Dad wanted out. My mother didn’t plan on the family business going under and her looking for a job at 50 in a economically-troubled town of 20,000 people.

Maybe you can argue with, “Well, she could have planned better!” But one doesn’t expect for the husband to go away the business to go away and the possibilities drying up the older you get. My Mom budgeted and made the right choices, but even making the right choices doesn’t guarantee you anything.

So my family was poor, but you know what? My Mom made me start working the second it was legally possible. Of course I grew up working in the family business as well, but when I hit 16, it was time to make money for myself. I didn’t want to, but after a short period of time, I loved working. Even then I was thankful that my mother made me work. It made me feel independent and it challenged me. I’ve never stopped working since. Throughout high school and college, I worked.  After college, I went straight into a career. I’ve never not been working and even though at various points I’ve hated my job, I could never imagine just giving up.

I may not be a millionaire but because of the work ethic my mother instilled in me I’ve gotten to see more places and meet more people than most. If she didn’t teach me the idea that I could be whatever I wanted to be, I wouldn’t be where I am today and I kind of like the person I am.

Aside from thinking of my mother and all her hard work through the years when listening to Gingrich’s words, I thought about my friends growing up who had similar, if not more challenging predicaments. My friend Alex whose Mom worked three jobs to support her children. They lived in a small apartment near grade school until the mother made enough money to buy a house for her family. I thought about the 5 person family who lived in the studio apartment across the hall from me in LA. The father always heading off to work to ensure that his family ate and had a roof over their heads. I thought of the people I’ve met and the stories I’ve heard where people came from humble beginnings and came out ahead because their parents taught them to be responsible and to work hard.

I thought of all these things and the words that came out of Newt’s lips made me more and more angry.

I called my mother to see how she felt about Gingrich’s speech and as a fairly avid news watcher, she hadn’t heard about it.

Me: Did you hear about Newt Gingrich and his statements about child labor laws and children from low income homes?

Mom: No, what now?

Me: He said that poor children have no habit of working because nobody around them works and he feels that to help this problem children should become janitors in their schools.

Mom: Oh my God.

Me: I wanted to talk about this with you considering that when I was growing up, we were considered poverty level.

Mom: Where does he get his info from? That’s ridiculous. You can’t categorize people like that. Attitude towards working has nothing to do with which class you’re in. What about the rich kids that don’t want to work? They get used to their parents bailing them out. Why don’t they work as janitors?

Me: What do you think would happen if you forced the low income students to become janitors?

Mom: Kids are self-conscious at that age as is. Unfortunately kids think that being a janitor as not a glamorous job. That mentality would ostracize them, make them stand out, and it could lead to them dropping out. Janitorial work is an honorable and important job, but you know how kids are. When I was a kid, we volunteered. Make all the damn kids volunteer, for crying out loud.

Me: How does this speech make you feel?

Mom: It’s ridiculous. We poor people work our asses off. Every poor person I know busts their butt in order to survive. I thought Republicans were all about the government being less intrusive? This is very intrusive.

Me: Anything else you want to add?

Mom: This is all hogwash.

Me: And…

Mom: I don’t want to talk about it anymore, it’s making me mad.

Me: Ha. Ok, Mom.

Mom: Oh, and don’t make me sound stupid on your blog, ok?

I wish I could have gotten a little more from my mother but the speech mostly made her super angry and worked up. Which is exactly how I feel. Between Perry and Gingrich and the other racist and prejudice jargon that have come from many of the Republican candidates’ lips, it infuriates me that that mentality still exists in America.

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  • Reply Kellyn D December 15, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    This seriously sounds EXACTLY like myself and my mom! We were super poor growing up. My mom raised me and my two siblings on minimum wage, which was $4.75. She had a TON of extra jobs cleaning houses and office buildings. All that woman did was work. I learned so much about financial independence from my mom. I work hard and don’t rely on anyone but myself for money. My siblings are the same way.

    It may just be me but all of the Republican candidates seem really out of touch with reality. I don’t understand how people aren’t completely rejecting them and their hateful views. Politics these days make me so angry/upset/confused/worried about the future.

  • Reply EG December 15, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    Totally agree and want to throw up. I hate that they always protect the rich when so many of the “rich” have no work ethic whatsoever. They inherit it alot of the time and are lazy and drug addled. Where’s the outrage against those losers? Give the poor a break! Working at Walmart is not a job that pays the bills, but at least they are working and trying to get by with maybe even more than 1 job. I have always worked since I was 14 as well. My mom’s best advice, while it sounds harsh is true “Never depend on a man for money.”

  • Reply Mademoiselle HauteMess December 16, 2011 at 3:20 am

    I couldn’t agree more! I was LIVID when I saw Newt Gingrich’s speech. My father was from a below poverty level family of 10. My grandfather was the custodian at the Catholic School, and my father used to mow grass and shovel snow at the school just to pay for his book bill. But that was on top of the other paying jobs he needed to have to help contribute. The school forcing him to work just became a second job for him…on top of being a full time student. That didn’t instill work ethic. That punished him for being from a lower income family. He worked his ass off regardless – because that is how he was raised.

    UGH. My fam got worked up, too!

  • Reply Emily James December 17, 2011 at 3:38 am

    Thank you for writing this.
    I have a stack of 70+ letters written by my 9th grade students to Newt Gingrich after they watched his comments.

    This is my 6th year teaching students from low income families in New York
    City public high schools, and the statements made by mr. Gingrich were
    extraordinarily offensive to me because of their fallaciousness. As a
    teacher of writing I work hard with my students to help derail stereotypes
    that are held by many people around the country. It is so disappointig to
    have someone who feels he is of enough value to become the commander in
    chief of out entire nation make such incorrect, ignorant and blanketed
    statements without apology.  We have published books (Dangerously Defined
    http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/dangerously-defined/5482846)  and
    worked diligently to undo the harmful and stagnating misconceptions that
    his words are reinforcing.  And myself- growing up in a middle to upper
    class suburb as a caucasian  woman,the biggest learning experience for me
    these past years has been discovering how much more determined and
    dedicated these students are at such a young age than i was- without a lot
    of the economic support that I had.

    This year,  My 9th grade class at Brooklyn Preparatory High School has an
    attendance rate over 90%. Students have to travel up to 2 hours using
    crowded public transportation, many with one or more transfers just to get
    there in the morning. They then wait in long lines to get through scanning
    as the building houses multiple schools within.

    Our school follows a model where Habits of Work are explicitly instructed
    and students are assessed based on their mastery of these habits within
    each content area. they are visible on every classroom wall. We call it
    learning the ROPES. Resourcefulness, organization, perseverance, eagerness,
    and self awareness. If mr. Gingrich wants to help support the development
    of these habits, why not support the schools, educators and students who
    are in the process of mastering them already?

    Emily James

  • Reply Karen December 19, 2011 at 12:12 am

    Gingrich has no check on reality. Most of us have stories of people struggling or have done it ourselves. My father went to work in the PA coal mines at age 12 (1930’s) because he had to support his widowed blind mother (who mopped the floors of the local high school at night…yes, and being blind doing so). BTW, her husband, my grandfather was killed in a mine cave-in. Together, with my uncle also working in the mines, they tried to survive and eat and be clothed. Would I wish that kind of hard labor on any child? Never. But how DARE Gingrich state that children growing up in poor areas don’t know how to work. And how much of his MILLIONS has HE donated to help these poor communities? Shame on him and all of those candidates who treasure the rich and want to punish the poor. God help us if he is elected. (And thanks for letting me rant.)

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