Should Children Work as Janitors? An Atlantic Debate

Newt Gingrich proposed to let children work as schoolhouse janitors. I called his suggestion crazy. Readers pounced. Here's what we learned.


Shutterstock / Gustavo Toledo

Yesterday, I published an article criticizing Newt Gingrich's argument that in order to cure poverty, the United States needed to relax its child labor laws. Specifically, I took issue with his proposal that schools should fire all but one of their unionized janitors and replace them with kids as young as nine. The piece is here, but to get a flavor of it, this was my main point:

"It's not really worth engaging Gingrich's idea as a serious policy suggestion. I just don't see the buckets-and-books plan getting much traction in Congress. But his comments are worth dwelling on for a moment, because they're a jarring illustration of Gingrich's casual disdain for American workers."

The article received more than 200 comments that fell into three camps: People who agreed with me; people who felt I wasn't giving Gingrich a fair hearing; and people who thought that while his proposal was flawed, there was something to the idea of teaching children hard work and responsibility.

Here are some of the most insightful and interesting comments.

"Perhaps if you saw a workforce that didn't consist of only nine year olds playing with high voltage an hydrochloric acid, you'd realize how practical this idea actually is."

RobM: Ten year old children can mop, wipe down surfaces. Twelve year old children can stack chairs in the cafeteria, clean the cafeteria, etc. Fourteen year old children can learn about basic plumbing and repairs, and can then maintain the basic plumbing and repairing. Sixteen year olds can learn basic electrical work, and can have their work supervised and inspected - in the process they learn some skills. Juniors at vocational schools show this to be absolutely true. Perhaps if you saw a workforce that didn't consist of only nine year olds playing with high voltage and hydrochloric acid, you'd realize how practical this idea actually is. At fourteen years old supervised children are fully capable of doing a surprisingly large number of mechanical and physical tasks. They do this on farms all the time. By 16 these kids could have learned any number of skills useful in their later lives. Clearly it's better for 12 year old kids to eat junk food while cruising on Facebook, right?

A number of readers argued that I was exaggerating the dangers janitorial work might pose to children. Many noted, for instance, that you could have kids of different ages handling separate tasks. A couple of issues here: First, Newt Gingrich isn't talking about 16-year-olds. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, teens 16-to-18 are allowed to work unlimited hours in any occupation, as long as it isn't considered "hazardous." Hazardous jobs, in that case, mean things like coal mining and working in explosives factories. Not janitorial work. So presumably, high schools can already hire their juniors and seniors. Regarding mopping and wiping down surfaces, some of it might well be harmless. But a lot of that wiping is where the hazardous chemicals come into play. Nonetheless, Rob has a point: 14-year-olds aren't completely helpless.

"Classic straw man argument..."

Gat007: classic straw man argument ...where exactly in his speech does gingrich mention 9 year olds toying with HVAC equipment? obviously, the janitorial functions would be assigned according to age and ability. and obviously the most complex tasks would be performed by the master janitor and perhaps his or her assistant if necessary (i.e. larger schools might require additional adult staff). gingrich's point was simply that at least some janitorial duties could be performed by students, giving them a sense of pride and work ethic, and at the same time saving the school district some cash. i also assume the work would be voluntary, with parental consent required. the work could also be rotated, so that each student need not spend an inordinate amount of time on this work as opposed to their studies.

Gingrich didn't get deep into logistics, but many readers were happy to fill in the gap. I'm not really an expert on school maintenance, but Gat007's solution seems like a bit of an organizational nightmare. Also, if you're rotating the work between students, that would undermine the idea of it as a poverty fighting tool. But who knows. Maybe it could work.

"I taught high school in Japan for two years...Gingrich's fundamental idea is not nearly as crazy as this article makes it out to be."

Chinko Manko: I taught high school in Japan for two years. The students there are responsible for taking the trash from the rooms to the dumpster and cleaning the floors, windows, chalkboards, etc. As a result the students are much more respectful of the property and less inclined to make messes or vandalize property. The schools save money and the children develop more responsibility. They still have a maintenance/janitorial staff that handles difficult and dangerous tasks. I think this is what Gingrich meant by a "master janitor." I think most schools would require more than one and would still need a night crew to come in on occasion and do the heavy duty cleaning. However, Gingrich's fundamental idea is not nearly as crazy as this article makes it out to be

Several commenters made the comparison to Asian schools, and I actually thought the point was fascinating. Here's a short U.S. News piece about the practice. I'll leave a response to the next commenter.

"Newt isn't talking about 'kids' working in schools here, he's talking about poor kids." 

poorrichkids: In all the comments about Asian models, or how it won't kill kids to work a little in schools, I don't see any recognition of the following: Newt isn't talking about "kids" working in schools here - he's talking about poor kids, i.e. people "under 16 or 14 years old" , as Newt says. Are they really already old enough to be held responsible for lifting themselves out of poverty and reducing costs of school maintenance?

This is an important distinction that seemed to be lost for some. Gingrich isn't talking about a collective act of school spirit. He's talking about a way for a few underprivileged children to make a living. Poorrichkids later said he wasn't taking a position on Gingrich's proposal, but he does ask some important questions.

"It turns out that way back in 1980, my school followed this plan."

David Gunter: It turns out that way back in 1980 my school (private school) actually followed this plan. That is, our 400 pupil school had but one janitor. He hired two of us kids (myself and another friend) to work after school 2 hours every day. We cleaned bathrooms, emptied trash cans, mopped or vacuumed floors, cleaned windows and cleaned chalkboards. It only took the two of us to clean the entire school over a week's time. I'm sure the school saved a little on having to hire adults to do the same job while give us kids a chance to earn some real money. As much as I like the idea since it worked out for me, it is an untenable solution. I had this after school job for 2 years, as did another friend. There simply isn't a way to employ a majority of the kids in this fashion. Also, the public high school where my wife teaches only has one full-time janitor. The rest of the help is all part-time, about the same hours as I had as a kid. There isn't much money to be saved by cutting the janitorial staff.

"If the school bully found out I was cleaning toilets I would have have been an object of ridicule and abuse."

1reasononly1:I worked as a janitor in my parents business starting at 6 years old so my dad could finish college. But if the school bully found out I was cleaning toilets I would have been an object of ridicule and abuse. This would create a class system within the school where children should be shielded from class discrimination. 

With all due respect for your insight into parenting gentlemen, don't you think the best way to teach kids about the value of work is to put food on the table through a working role model parental figure? What will happen is the job will be taken from dad who is now on extended unemployment benefits, drawing medicare and given to Junior who now resents the system for forcing his family deeper into poverty. We are talking about taking away a job from a hard working member of our society and displacing them into oblivion, there is nowhere to go.

A crucial but easy to overlook point: kids are cruel. Nobody wants to see junior get dunked in the toilet he was just cleaning. Also, this proposal would mean taking jobs from adults, who presumably also have children to feed.

"I am a custodian and I assure you an upkeep of any school is not as easy as you may think." 

Luis Enrique Perez: I am a custodian and i assure you an upkeep of any school is not as easy as you may think. There area number of things that need to be done every single day in maintaining a school. Classrooms; desks are set and floors swept, boards cleaned, window blinds dusted as well as TVs, computers, file cabinets. Windows must be locked and secured, graffiti removed and garbage removed, classroom floors scraped and/or mopped. Each section has about 10 to 12 classrooms. Each section has a set of bathrooms which have to be swept, disinfected, toilets scrubbed, sinks scrubbed, mirrors cleaned, floors mopped, garbage removed and toilet paper stocked, clogs taken care of and grafitti removed and walls wiped down depending on the day. The ladies bathrooms have feminie sanitary napkins that need to be removed. Then you have the long hallways that need to be pushed, either spot mopped or fully mopped, depending on the day. Gum scraped and lockers dusted or grafitti removed, depending on the day. Every section has atleast 1 entrance that needs to be secured, door windows cleaned and carpets vacuumed. Now, lets talk about floor stripping....heavy machinery is used to strip floors which get very very slippery when you use floor stripper on them. You have to wear special shoes for this job. Im a grown man and still I lose control of the machinery at times which has knock me on my behind a few time. Its a heavy machine that needs to be held very steay as you walk on those slipper floors swinging from left to right, up and down. Onec the floor is stripped it has to be rinsed and mopped thorougly before you start the waxing process. Again you have to use a specialwax that you mop on to the floor, making sure you use even and through strokes, as if you were painting the floor. After School activities such as sports, concerts, board meeting, gir scout meetings, adult ed classes. You have to set up coffee and water for those board meetings and be available if they need anything. You need to set up rooms (cafeteria) (Teachers lounge) for Girl Scouts meetings. If theres a concert you need to act as security because the public is entering the building and you need to clean the auditoriom after the event.Sports; setup, if its an out door sport you need to drive the mini carts to deliver, sporting equipment or sports clocks, or the elderly etc...When it snows...shoveling, snow removal, when it rains....leaks. Cafeteria, lifting of benches and wiping down all tables and benches, chair stacking, floor sweeping and mopping. Midterms....desks have to be moved from classrooms into gym area. In my school we do 500 desks in 3 to 4 hours. etc etc etc much more than I can list here....Do you really think a bunch of young kids could handle this day in and day out? If someone has an accident, how would they handle it? If the fire alarm goes off? One Head Janitor would not be able to do it alone. And what about during the day? Who is going to work that shift? Get my point? Garbage removal is not as lite as you think either, there have been times when ive hurt myself lifting heavy bags of garbag. Each classroom has 1 or 2 garbag cans. Each hallway has 1 or 2 large garbage cans...when there are events there is lts of garbage removal. Cleaning locker rooms and gym floors is a very heavy job. We get 2 breaks a day, a 15 minute coffe break and a 1/2 hour dinner break. It takes an 8 hour day to do a basic job and there are many times when extra work needs to get done so we get 1 or 2 hours of OT to be able to get it done.

"All you're doing is reinstating the idea of apprenticeship."

Karl Moles: If the idea is to have the student work to contribute income to the household then would the idea be to give their hard earned money to the parents to do with as they please or does this merely allow the student a bit of extra cash? if the latter then i cant see very many children being willing to put their money toward their family's wellbeing. they simply aren't going to think in those terms. thirdly, regardless of who would end up in control of the money legally you're going to see large numbers of parents from poorer backgrounds forcing the kids to work against their will so that they can take the money. not all parents will do this of course, but its inevitable that it will occur. particularly in cases where the parents don't put much value on education the children are likely to be "encouraged" to skip studying in favor of working longer hours. limits would have to be put in place on the GPA necessary to participate in these programs which would lead to only the top students who are more likely to succeed anyway being allowed to work. finally, if you open the door to working as a janitor in this way you are in effect saying that work in general is ok. not necessarily a problem but in essence all you're doing is reinstating the idea of apprenticeship. perhaps a more reasonable idea would be to allow the student to work in a profession of their choosing at a company or public service willing to accept them in exchange for school supplies, food, and small amounts of school credit. in such a scenario there would be no cash pay for multiple years and upon graduating high school their accumulated income (which would be below minimum wage to make it worthwhile for the companies and to compensate for the supplies) would go toward college or vocational school in the area they now had experience in. if they did well enough perhaps they could become certified in their particular chosen field. that sounds more reasonable to me.

This brings up a more general issue that I personally wish I had spent a bit more time considering: The problem with child labor isn't just that it could potentially hurt kids, but also that it sets them up for exploitation. The reader's policy proposal might be tough to implement, but it's a thoughtful start.