In 1729, Jonathan Swift wrote “a modest proposal for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public.” To reduce the burden of poverty, he said, parents should sell their children to the rich to eat. Of course, it was a satirical effort to shock the upper class about their heartless attitudes towards the poor. Two hundred and eighty two years later, Newt Gingrich’s modest proposal is for poor kids to work as junior janitors. He wasn’t kidding.
Children living in poverty are growing rapidly in our country. New census data show that nearly 1 in 3 American children have joined the ranks of the poor, an increase of more than a million in 2010. A headline in the Washington Post on December 8th announced that the income gap between whites and blacks in the District of Columbia is the widest in the nation, with whites earning $3.06 for every $1 in black income. The Sandusky scandal reminds us how children and low income families are literally targeted and preyed upon by people seeking to take advantage of their vulnerability. And now the leading contender for the Republican nomination for president is cruelly stereotyping and attacking low income children, making declarations about their moral character and future prospects for a life of crime.
Newt Gingrich said on December 1st: “Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and nobody around them who works. So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash,’ unless it’s illegal.”
The same day he said this, I got a call from the 13-year-old girl I mentor. “Sabrina” lives in one of the neighborhoods Gingrich casually dismisses, where violence and drug use is a problem, and unemployment is high.
“Um, Ms. Larson, I have some bad news. I accidentally dropped my glasses in the street and a car ran over them and I cried. Can you help me get new glasses, because I can’t see the blackboard at school?”
Sabrina’s parents both work. But they cannot afford to get her glasses, or fix the car when it breaks down, or get a new outfit when school starts. Several years ago, when I was the social worker at the southeast public school where she attended, I helped her get her first pair of glasses, thanks to an eyeglass company. It was a thrill to see this skinny, studious child with her gorgeous brown eyes be able to see clearly for the first time in the fifth grade. Since then, every year or so, we make the pilgrimage to the glasses store in the mall where she never asks for anything beyond an eye exam and my opinion about what frames best fit her face.
“Is it going to cost?” she asks each year, not wanting to be a financial burden on her parents or me.
I asked her what she wanted for her birthday this year and, after some thought, she replied, “I don’t really need anything.” Instead, she proceeded to ask what my newborn son needs. I assured her Oliver doesn’t need anything.
“I really want to get him something,” she insisted. When I spoke with her father, he said she accompanied him to work all day doing manual labor, asking if she could get paid so she could buy my baby a present. This “poor child” could ask me for anything she wants, and all she asks is that I help her get glasses, so she can see the blackboard at school.
Sabrina convinced her father to let her take the subway to meet me at the mall as long as her older sister accompanied her. He called me as he dropped them off at the subway station, thirty minutes early because they were so excited. He called again to confirm that I found them in our meeting spot (the girls don’t have cell phones). There they were in the darkened underground station, eager to meet Oliver and take turns pushing his stroller.
“I’ve never been to a mall this big,” Sabrina’s sister said, as she asked if they have a movie theater. Sabrina was ten by the time she saw her first movie, on a school field trip. The girls presented me with a Christmas present, a pair of earrings, a snow globe and a homemade card. For their gifts, I wanted them to pick out something for their parents and one thing for themselves. Sabrina’s sister picked out a watch, because at 16, she never had a watch before and she said, “I want to know what time it is.” Sabrina picked out a sweater, after comparing the tags and making sure it was the cheapest one. They selected warm slippers and socks for their parents.
After we picked up her new glasses and she put them on, Sabrina glided through the mall with a big smile, eagerly reading faraway signs with ease. We headed for the food court, and my seven-week-old was crying. I told them we needed to forgo our plans to sit down and eat and get take out instead because it’s past the baby’s bedtime.
“Oliver has more needs than us, so we need to get him home,” Sabrina replied, helping me with the stroller.
As I took the train home, I thought about how Sabrina sees the world, compared to how Newt Gingrich sees her.
Sabrina doesn’t know about Gingrich. She doesn’t know that she attends the city’s lowest performing public charter school, or that the deck stacked against her is growing more formidable every day. Sabrina just wants to be able to see, to give to the people she loves, and to do well in school so she can live her dreams, just as Gingrich would want for his grandchildren. Newt Gingrich seems to think that relaxing child labor laws and expecting her to clean toilets at her school, like a “junior janitor,” will help teach her a work ethic she is apparently lacking. The fact that a national leader can make such statements and enjoy soaring poll numbers should give us all pause.
Jonathan Swift’s writing did not give the Irish public the pause he intended; rather, they took it as a joke. That’s how we take Gingrich too. That might be fine if he were a disgraced former Congressman signing books in malls, but he is now the front-running Republican candidate for President of the United States. While we might shake our heads and laugh at his proposal, a million more children are suffering this year, who were not poor the year before. Soaring poverty among families is causing opportunity gaps for children like Sabrina, no matter how hard their parents work to survive. If teaching children to clean toilets is not the answer, then we’d better rise to the challenge and make our nation worthy of the trust Sabrina puts in its goodness.
Jamila Larson is a licensed independent, clinical social worker with fourteen years of experience working in Washington DC. She is co-founder and executive director of the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, which was selected as one of the best small charities in the D.C. region” by the Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington. You can find more information at Homeless Children’s Playtime Project.