Current GOP frontrunner Newt Gingrich has diagnosed a major problem with our society.
Well, he almost did. During a recent interview, I told him that I thought he had made a very good point about the diminishing work ethic of many Americans. But, I said, he hadn’t gone far enough. He should have widened his net to include a host of people that he hadn’t thought of.
“I’ve been talking a little bit about the importance of work,” Gingrich recently told reporters at a press conference in New York, “particularly as it relates to people who are in areas where there is public housing and where there are relatively few people who go to work.”
There it is. “People who are in areas where there is public housing.” In other words, poor folks. Those are the people Newt thinks need the lesson about how to work.
To illustrate his point, he asked the roomful of assembled journalists: “How many of you earned some money doing something before you were 10 years old, whether it was cutting grass or babysitting or something?”
Gingrich submits that, with successful people, it tends to be the case that they got an early start learning about the value of work, and the importance of holding down a job.
Of course, not everyone learns those lessons. And Gingrich zeroed in on one group in particular. He pointed out that, for instance, with African-American teenagers, the unemployment rate is a staggering 43 percent. So he submits that government should help create a “pathway to work” so that “people get in the work habit and learn the skills to be successful.”
Gingrich is right to try to engage Americans in a discussion about the importance of working and to suggest that some people have never learned the value of holding down a job.
But he is wrong to limit the indictment to poor people, those who live in “public housing,” and African-American teenagers with high unemployment rates. The lack of a work ethic is a major problem, but it’s also a mainstream one.
Newt has the right message, and it’s an important one. But he needs to take it to the well-to-do suburbs and the country clubs. That’s where they really need to hear it.
In fact, as someone who speaks to groups all over the country, I worry less about students from poor families who lack resources and opportunities than I do about those from the upper middle class who lack passion and purpose. Poor kids often have a fire in their belly. Upper middle class kids can sometimes be harder to motivate, especially if they’ve never been taught to work by their parents.
That’s what I told Gingrich during the interview. I asked him why he didn’t broaden his remarks beyond black teenagers to include white kids in suburbs who don’t know how to work or even hold a broom and sweep a garage…or, for that matter, why he didn’t broaden it to include Americans of all ages.
“First of all,” he insisted. “I didn’t mention color. I mentioned poor.”
He’s mistaken. See above. He did mention color.
“I think there’s a really great challenge for people who grow up in poor neighborhoods with no models of success that are immediate and that relate to them,” he said. “We have to overreach to help them frankly. But I don’t disagree.”
Then he proceeded to, well, disagree.
“My limited experience is that middle-class parents are dramatically more likely to require that their kids do real work in order for them to get rewarded,” he said. “They don’t just give the money. They actually want them to learn to be responsible.”
Undeterred, I pressed him a bit harder.
“Look,” I said, “you and I didn’t grow up wealthy. But we’ve met very wealthy people who often raise their kids to think of themselves as being entitled and not having to work, right?
“Yeah,” he conceded, “and it’s usually wrong. And it usually makes a mess of things. It sort of makes my case.”
Then, changing the subject a bit, Gingrich gently steered the discussion back to his favorite subject: himself.
“You’re touching on one of the things that makes me the most different as a leader,” he said. “I’m a cultural leader more than a political leader. And I think re-establishing the culture of work, and talking candidly and directly is part of that….”
“It’s a very important conversation that you’ve raised,” he said, “And it’s a problem that I really think we have to look forward to solving. I’m prepared to say bluntly: Students should have to do homework, and people should expect to work.”
Yes, they should — no matter where they live, how much money they have, or what their parents do for a living. That’s the better and stronger message, and I would have liked to hear Gingrich give voice to it. He still can.