During Monday night's Republican debate in South Carolina, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich continued to promote his controversial strategy to fight both child poverty and the jobs crisis: New York City janitors who make "an absurd amount of money" should be fired and replaced by poor schoolchildren, he said.
"You could take one janitor and hire 30-some kids to work in the school for the price of one janitor," Gingrich said. "And those 30 kids would be a lot less likely to drop out. They would actually have money in their pocket."
The idea captures Gingrich's spin on two popular right-wing economic claims: Union workers are overpaid and the poor simply need to work harder to improve their lives.
In South Carolina, Gingrich didn't define an "absurd amount of money," but earlier this month he said, incorrectly, that an entry-level janitor gets paid twice as much as an entry-level teacher. Not only do Gingrich's calculations assume janitors earn much more than they actually do, his theory is deeply flawed, and would likely harm impoverished communities, not help them, researchers say.
The top salary for a New York City public school cleaner -- who generally does the type of work that Gingrich imagines schoolchildren might do -- is $37,710, or $18.13 an hour, according to the Service Employees International Union, which represents all 5,000 janitors. Divided among 30 kids, that would be some $1,257 a year, or a little over $24 a week. Meanwhile, the starting salary for a first-year teacher with no advanced degree is $45,530, more than a cleaner.
It's true that some workers classified as janitors make a decent living (by New York City standards): Custodial engineers in the New York City public school system can earn a top salary of $114,000 a year, but they start around $56,000 a year, and they work as supervisors -- not "entry-level" janitors. Along with supervising other custodians, their job responsibilities include repairing heating and electrical equipment and inspecting buildings. The work requires a high school diploma, or equivalent, along with years of experience, according to the New York City Department of Education.
Either way, if any of those janitorial positions were filled by schoolchildren, labor experts point out, the U.S. would have one less decently paying job.
"Essentially, Gingrich wants to take good-paying union jobs from parents and make it a low-paying job for a child to do," said Anne Thompson, a policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, a group that promotes policies and programs that create good jobs.
This would exacerbate an already troubling post-recession trend: while the job market has improved in recent months, most of the jobs that have come back since the recession have been low-paying, according to a National Employment Law Project analysis.
"I don't see how his plan helps families struggling to pay bills or facing foreclosure," Thompson said. Even leaving aside the child labor laws put in place nearly a century ago, Thompson continued, "I'm not sure how this helps grow our economy."
The response from labor unions has been predictably enraged.
"To say these jobs pay too much, or should be given to kids, is not just a slap in the face of hardworking Americans struggling to make ends meet on a poverty-like wages, but an affront to any fair-minded person concerned about our schools, kids and the plight of millions of working families across our country," said Hector Figueroa, secretary-treasurer of 32BJ, the local Service Employees International Union that represents the New York City public school cleaners.
Research does not substantiate Gingrich's claim that these janitorial jobs would keep poor kids in school or improve their future.
"It's really based on a misunderstanding of who poor kids are," said Ange-Marie Hancock, an associate professor of political science at the University of Southern California and author of "The Politics of Disgust and the Public Identity of the 'Welfare Queen.'"
"It's the idea that poor children are inherently flawed and need to learn certain things, as opposed to thinking about the system that fails to serve them," Hancock said.
While there is plenty of research that supports various strategies for helping poor children -- extending the school day, or providing certain kinds of services -- there is no research, Hancock said, that supports the idea that children who work won't drop out of school. The closest supporting research Hancock knows is from last century that suggested children in orphanages would benefit from working.
The real point of Gingrich's claim, Hancock said, is to cue racial resentment among members of the audience, who greeted Gingrich's speech on Monday with great applause.
Gingrich was responding to a question from moderator Juan Williams, asking the former speaker whether he can see how his various statements on poverty and job creations -- about poor kids and janitorial work, but also his suggestion that black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps, and his characterization of Obama as a "food stamp president" -- as "at a minimum, as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans?"
"No. I don’t see that," Gingrich said.
Gingrich's other statements on poverty and job creation were flawed claims as well: The Congressional Black Caucus held a jobs tour around the country last summer, highlighting high black unemployment rates and calling for job creation; Obama may be the president with the highest number of Americans on food stamps, but he has also presided over the worst recession since the Great Depression, before the program existed.
"Gingrich's vision is so profoundly myopic," Hancock continued. "He ignores that this takes jobs away from adults, he ignores the idea that there's something more than a job that's missing from the needs of these poor children, and he queues up these old stereotypes."