Child mill workers in North Carolina, circa 1910

For a “conservative,” Newt Gingrich is awfully cavalier about making radical change, at least when it comes to upending the nation’s century-old child labor laws.

Newt, who longs to be this nation’s next president, says one way he would use that bully pulpit would be to push to replace “expensive” unionized adult labor with that of cheap child labor. He says poor kids have lousy work ethics that would be greatly improved if they were paid to do things like clean toilets and man the libraries and front desks at their schools.

Not paid much, however. As Newt pointed out, another benefit of putting poor kids to work is that kid labor would “be dramatically less expensive than unionized janitors.” (See for yourself starting at :12 of this CNN segment.)

(Guess poor kids should also learn not to expect equal pay for equal work.)

Sounds like Newt, himself a throwback to the Clinton presidency of the 1990s when he served as a House Speaker, longs for a return to the 1890s and the Industrial Revolutionary growth of factories and the need for cheap human labor. Among the cheapest were children, many of whom worked 18-hour days for as little as $1.

U.S. child laborers supported themselves and their families. Both school and basic health care were luxuries few could partake of or for very long.

The plight of child laborers in the U.S. is what drove early 20th century progressives to lobby for laws limiting the number of hours and type of work children could do.  The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 basically made it illegal for kids to work before the age of 14, except for farm work. Teens had to be at least 16 to work during school hours, 14 to work certain types of jobs after school and 18 for jobs considered dangerous.

To hear Newt at a campaign stop in Iowa last week, one would think that poor kids were unjustly burdened by the “requirement” that they attend school. He likened working as a janitor or school librarian to the stereotypical part-time after-school jobs as babysitter, pizza or newspaper delivery, or retail store clerk.

“You have kids who are required under law to go to school,” Newt postured. “They have no money. They have no habit of work. What if you paid them part time in the afternoon to sit at the clerical office and greet people when they came in?  What if you paid them to work as the assistant librarian? . . . What if they became assistant janitors and their job was to mop the floor and clean the bathrooms, and you paid them?”

Outrageous. In a nation still burdened by an 8.6 percent unemployment rate, what becomes of the adult office clerk, librarian or janitor in Newt’s scenario? Think they’ll end up joining the ranks of the nation’s unemployed?

And in that scenario, whom will their children witness going to work?

Because this also is key in Newt’s worldview: Children must have some adult in their lives who works if they are to have a healthy work ethic.

It’s yet another reason that poor kids need to be put to work scrubbing floors: Poor kids apparently don’t have parents, sisters, brothers, cousins, guardians, grandparents, uncles or even play aunts, who work. All of the adults in poor kids’ lives just lay about all day either doing nothing or committing crime.

“Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works,” Newt told supporters.  “. . . they 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.”

Talk about class warfare. Newt slandered poor folk everywhere. And he’s wrong in any case. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, the more than 16.4 million poor children in America “live in working families.”

The problem is not that poor children don’t see adults in their families work. It’s that they see the working adults in their families making little, if any, economic progress. They see working adults doing the kinds of low-wage, no-benefits, part-time jobs that once were held by teens, like store retail clerks and food delivery men. This in turn means fewer legitimate part-time jobs for teens in need to have.

The problem is not that poor children are somehow burdened by the “requirement” that they attend school. The problem is that too many are not finishing school and getting the kind of higher skills needed to be gainfully employed in today’s high-tech workforce. Better to put money and resources into keeping all schools open until 5 p.m., providing tutoring and extracurricular programming designed to keep students engaged in learning.

The problem is not that poor children have lousy work habits. The problem is that adults like Newt, the so-called leaders charged with coming up with “big ideas” and “solutions,” just aren’t working hard enough.