Newt Gingrich, and the Plight of the Poor Black Kids

So, if you haven’t heard this tale, allow me to give you a little background.  Newt Gingrinch, GOP political candidate, vying for the nomination for President of the United States, recently espoused an interesting employment plan”

What I suggested was, kids ought to be allowed to work part-time in school, particularly in the poorest neighborhoods, both because they could use the money.

“If you take one-half of the New York janitors who are unionized and paid more than the teachers, an entry-level janitor gets paid twice as much as an entry-level teacher. You take half of those janitors, you could give virtually– you could give lots of poor kids a work experience in the cafeteria and the school library and– and front office, and a lot of different things. I’ll stand by the idea, young people ought to learn how to work.” ~ Newt Gingrich

Allow me to reserve my ideas on this plan for the moment.  So, this has caused a firestorm of editorials and blogs, because, quite frankly, his facts are all wrong.


If it were I’d quite my job right now, pack my bags, and head back to Chicago with a brushed off resume and every intention to become an entry-level janitor.

More specifically:

“At first blush, Gingrich’s claim appears to be substantiated by an April 18 story from NBC New Yorkthat stated: “First-year New York City school teachers without graduate degrees make about $45,000 a year. The minimum pay for a first-year custodial engineer is almost $80,000 a year.” But the report mistakenly confused minimum pay with base pay.

Let’s dig a little deeper. The starting salary for a first-year teacher with a bachelor of arts degree is $45,530, and it’s $51,425 for someone with a master’s degree.

Things get trickier for “janitors.” For starters, there is no such job title as “janitor” in New York City schools. So let’s start with “custodial engineers,” the job designation in the NBC News report. It’s true that the base pay for an incoming custodial engineer is $81,000 a year, said Barbara Morgan, a spokeswoman for the NYC Department of Education. But there’s a catch. According to the contract negotiated with the union, employees only get 70 percent of that base pay their first year. The pay then goes up 10 percent a year in subsequent years, up to the full base pay. So it’s more accurate to say that a first-year custodial engineer makes about $56,000. That’s more than a first-year teacher, but nowhere close to double.

More important, custodial engineers are supervisory positions (much like the ones Gingrich said he would keep). According to the description in the latest notice for the civil service exam, the job is a lot more than pushing a mop. It entails hiring, training and supervising custodial staff; doing payroll; and maintaining and doing minor repairs to HVAC, boilers and plumbing. In general, custodial engineers are “responsible for the physical operation, maintenance, repair, custodial upkeep and care of a public school building and its immediate grounds.”

There are several classifications of custodial workers, but the one that probably most closely resembles a janitor is a “cleaner,” said Robert Troeller, president and business manager of Local 891 of the International Union of Operating Engineers in Brooklyn, N.Y. These are the folks who dust, mop and sweep, among other things. Cleaners get paid $18.13 an hour. That comes to $37,710 a year. But there’s another catch. In the first two years, entry-level cleaners are paid 15 percent less than that — $32,054. That’s substantially less than an entry-level teacher.”  ~ Source: HuffPost Politics/

So, let’s flip forward in this story.  A gentleman by the name of Gene Marks, who is a contributor to Forbes magazine, offered a rebuttal to Gingrich’s ideas, in a blog entitled “If I Were a Poor Black Kid”. I’ve linked the article for your reading pleasure.  Well, Marks offers an alternative view of what needs to be done to get these PBK’s on the road to economic freedom and liberation.

So, that brings us here, to me offering my opinion on all of this.  I listened to an NPR story on the fierce reactions to Marks’ story.

“What does a middle aged, suburban, white male know about what Black Kids in the ghetto need?”

That is a valid question.  However, I found it interesting that in the story, Marks’ blog was discussed as having many similarities to views expressed by Bill Cosby years ago on the plight of underprivileged minority children in America.  If you may recall, Mr. Cosby  drew tons of heat for his comments, even though he himself was a underprivileged black kid from the inner city.

Bill Cosby’s comments

So where does that leave us? Bill Cosby can’t “insult” the inner city community, nor can a well dressed white man…hmm…

Well, of course it is not good to insult anyone, but I think to fix a problem, we have to address all the issues involved.

…and part of that issue is that there are many obstacles in society that hinder PBK’s from getting a solid footing in society….

…and another part is that the families and communities of PBK’s are in many cases failing them.  Yes, I said it. The cornerstone of a child’s education, in all of it’s facets, must start in the home.  If the home is not being an integral and positive part of the education process in the life of that child, that child is being short changed at every twist and turn right off the bat.  That simple fact goes right into Bill Cosby’s statement:

“The lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal. These people are not parenting. They are buying things for kids—$500 for sneakers for what? And won’t spend $200 for ‘Hooked on Phonics.’” ~ Bill Cosby

Yes, it does sound ugly. But is it untrue?  It’s certainly not true in all cases, but it still bears to reason that yes, people from the lower economic strata can be extremely successful through hard work.

I am horrible at math!  Absolutely horrendous.  Does that mean that I didn’t do math?  No!  That means I worked at it.  I worked harder at it than I did anything else. I put in extra hours, I got tutors, extra help, I put in tons of time, and I reaped the rewards.

If you come from a disadvantaged background, that means you have to work harder than others. Is that fair?  No.  It’s not, but until we can find some variation of equality in our society, that’s what needs to be done.

Now, for the record. I’m middle aged, and black…I’ve never been poor.  I’m also a teacher.  I’ve dealt with underprivileged kids throughout my educational career, as well as now as my career as a history teacher in rural interior Alaska.  I’ve seen what can happen, both positive and negative, in the lives of kids that come from the direst of conditions.  What we must work to do is to change the percentages, so that they come out overwhelming positive, and ultimately, everyone in the circle needs a finger pointed at them to get past the finger pointing and start working on real solutions.

Finally, allow us to circle back to Newt.  His plan on allowing ” poor kids should be able to work as school janitors to develop a work ethic and avoid becoming, in Gingrich’s words, a prostitute or a drug dealer.”  Well, I don’t disagree with the ideology of allowing students to engage in a “job” that will allow them an opportunity to develop a work ethic, and develop skills needed in the real world.  However, I don’t trust Newt’s egalitarian nature.  I interpret this idea, coming from him, meaning that we should teach poor black kids to mop and clean toilets because that’s as good as they are going to get.

Why can’t they work as interns in your office on the weekend dick?

I can only imagine the changing of Newt’s tune when he has a bunch of Poor Black Kids running around his office, shuffling papers, filing, and collating.

Time will tell how this discussion plays out.  I will be gritting my teeth the entire way.


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