Further Thoughts on Child Labor and the Culture of Work

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

In my Dorf on Law post this past Friday, I discussed Newt Gingrich's recent appalling claim that our child labor laws are "truly stupid," and his proposal to put young children to work as janitors in schools -- supposedly to instill responsible working habits that (he wrongly claimed) such children cannot possibly learn at home, because (he also wrongly claimed) they have no role models who have jobs.

In my post, I noted that I had recently discussed with my seminar students a story that I heard years ago, about a person who takes a job and does well in that job, but who does not realize that he is expected to show up every day, whether he needs money that day or not. As one reader of my Friday post noted in an email, this story was probably widely true in certain colonial African nations in the late 1800's, where wage work was not the norm in agrarian societies (and where people had not yet been dispossessed from their lands, which would later be a key component in the colonizers' strategy to turn the locals into a reserve army of wage workers). Although that was not the version of the story that I had heard, it does support the point that I was making in class when I discussed its implications.

As I explained to my students, it is immaterial (for the purposes of that broader point) whether the story is true or apocryphal, or whether it is true but happened only once (rather than being a widespread phenomenon), or whether it happened in the U.S. or elsewhere. This is why the title of my Friday post used the term "anecdote" to describe the story. Unlike Gingrich, I did not need or want to describe it as a trend, or a pattern, or even a documented fact.

What matters from my standpoint is that the story points to a truth that is counter-intuitive to people living in modern capitalist societies: that showing up to work on a regular basis is a learned behavior. Why does that matter? Because so many other aspects of the employer/employee relationship are also learned, and are very subtly human -- undermining the crude economic view of people as mere factors of production. If there are learned nuances to being a "good worker," then it is possible to forget or to need to re-learn those skills, if one becomes unemployed for long periods of time.

One of the things that people almost certainly do not need to re-learn, of course, is that they need to show up regularly for a job. Once learned, that lesson is basic and presumably not forgotten (unless, as I discuss below, a former worker becomes damaged cognitively). The point of the anecdote, however, was to set up the extreme case at the end of a continuum: If even showing up regularly is part of a social relationship that is context-specific, think about how many other aspects of the employer/employee relationship there are that we never think about, any of which could be forgotten over time.

The most obvious of these are job-specific skills that were learned over time, and that can be forgotten as a worker's experiences and memories fade. (Think about how much re-learning students must do each September, after just a few months of summer vacation.) Other consequences of long-term unemployment, as I mentioned in my blog post, include the damage that humans often inflict on their minds and bodies through depression and substance abuse, when their social status and family lives are threatened by joblessness. These can obviously threaten both the ability to re-learn what is necessary to perform a job, and the ability to function as a responsible adult in an ongoing employment relationship.

In short, I was giving Gingrich an enormous benefit of the doubt, imagining that he might have taken a legitimate point out of context -- and then applied it inhumanely, and in a completely inappropriate context. (In light of the reader's information about this phenomenon in colonial Africa, this might explain where Gingrich's reasoning began -- before going so far astray.)

As I argued on Friday, Gingrich managed to turn an interesting, though quite limited, observation into a series of bizarre claims: (1) There are people who have grown up in the U.S., living today, who do not know that one needs to show up to work, even when they do not need cash, (2) Those people all live in poor neighborhoods, (3) Even though those people live in poor neighborhoods, they are not poor enough to need to show up to work every day that work is available, (4) The neighborhoods in which those people live are populated only by people who have no experience with -- or even knowledge of -- showing up for work regularly, (5) The adults in these neighborhoods could not be put to work (as, say, janitors) to provide good examples to children of working adults, (6) The children growing up in such neighborhoods manage to grow up without ever noticing people anywhere else (on TV shows, in movies, at school) living by these rules, (7) Those children can only learn this lesson in school, but (8) This important life lesson must be taught by having them do janitorial work, rather than simply teaching it to them in a place where they learn things -- like school.

As many have noted, a mind has to be particularly poisoned by ignorance and bias to go through all of those steps. (I have no doubt that I am missing a few other assumptions that are just so bizarre that I cannot fathom what Gingrich might have been thinking.) The result was simply a reaffirmation of standard coded-racist attacks on the "culture of poverty," to say nothing of the longstanding attacks on schools and unionized teachers.

I might add that Gingrich's odd idea to put the kids to work as janitors might not be as random or condescending as it seems, given that one of the right's lines of attack on the public schools is that the janitors (along with, of course, the teachers) are unionized. See, for example, this short op-ed from 2004 in The Economist, which begins with an attack on the "activist" New York courts for trying to enforce a constitutional mandate for educational quality, yet ends up taking a swipe at "the archaic work practices of school teachers and janitors." Yes, our schools are failing because of those gosh darn unionized janitors!

In the two weeks or so since this controversy erupted, Gingrich has moved on by: (1) Arguing that he was really only talking about giving kids part-time jobs, along the lines of being a newspaper carrier or a soda-jerk (to put a 50's spin on it, given Gingrich's obvious obsession with repealing the 1960's) , and (2) Saying other, even crazier things about other topics (like the whole "invented people" controversy). The former is a weak attempt to make an outrageous comment sound unthreatening. The latter is simply an application of what we learned from eight years of George W. Bush's presidency: An onslaught of outrageousness loses its impact, when people cannot even keep up with all the crazy things that are being said.

In his own insane way, however, Gingrich has allowed us to reflect on the nature of what it means to be a responsible worker. Yes, it is surely a good thing for children to be surrounded by people who are working, and who are responsible members of society. Maybe that means that we should not tolerate a political culture in which we have to fight simply to prevent Congress from making the employment situation worse, much less to try to put millions of long-term unemployed people -- rapidly decaying assets, if we must view them as such -- back to work.