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The Solution to Poverty: Kids Cleaning Toilets?

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At a campaign stop in Iowa Thursday, former speaker Newt Gingrich, making an argument against century-old child labor laws, said: "Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works ... [s]o 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."

His comments were in defense of his suggestion two weeks ago that kids living in poverty work as janitors in the schools they attend.

The former speaker has long positioned himself as a thoughtful conservative and a student of history. A lot of people believe that to be true. In this case, though, he's betrayed both roles.

To become productive members of society, children living in poverty don't need laws relaxed so they can clean toilets. They need to be in school learning how to read and write -- just like kids living in more affluent areas -- which is the path to a fair chance at success in life.

  • Economics says so: A meaningful investment in high-quality early childhood education would add $2 trillion to the gross domestic product within a generation.
  • Politics says so: The fight for a stronger, better education system is one that has the support of Democrats, Republicans, liberals and conservatives. Indeed, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, a Republican, is one of the nation's most prominent champions of early childhood education.
  • Our future says so: A quality education reduces crime, domestic violence and high school drop-out rates and increases productivity and innovation.

Since Mr. Gingrich was in Iowa, a short drive would have taught him something else about poverty in the United States -- that it's not just in urban areas.

In America today, there are at least 8 million people living in poverty outside actual urban and suburban "neighborhoods." These people live in genuinely rural areas like the farmlands of Iowa and the hollers of Kentucky. In these places, poverty usually means isolation from good jobs, healthy food and a quality education.

Speaker Gingrich has often railed against class warfare in America. As a student of history, he should know that class warfare isn't a one-way street of the poor fighting the wealthy. Indeed, with his own words, he taught that history lesson to himself.

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