Newt, Poor Children, & the Misuse of Virtue Ethics
Presidential hopeful and recent Catholic convert Newt Gingrich has once again made headlines with controversial statements concerning poverty and child labor laws. NY Times Columnist Charles Blow recounts:
On Thursday, at a campaign stop in Iowa, the former House speaker said, “Start with the following two facts: Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works. So 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.”
As Blow points out, Newt’s statements are not only inaccurate they are offensive.
This statement isn’t only cruel and, broadly speaking, incorrect, it’s mind-numbingly tone-deaf at a time when poverty is rising in this country. He comes across as a callous Dickensian character in his attitude toward America’s most vulnerable — our poor children. This is the kind of statement that shines light on the soul of a man and shows how dark it is.
Gingrich wants to start with the facts? O.K.
First, as I’ve pointed out before, three out of four poor working-aged adults — ages 18 to 64 — work. Half of them have full-time jobs and a quarter work part time.
Gingrich’s statements have received much media attention and criticism. (for examples see: The Root, the Washington Post, and even the UK Daily Mail). The factual inaccuracy of his quips have been soundly reported. His assumptions about the poor and work are based upon prejudicial misconceptions about the poor and laziness. In addition, his statements demonstrate a dangerous twisting of Christian ethical theory and that is what I’d like to focus on for a moment.
Lurking in the back of Gingrich’s offensive statements is virtue ethics. Virtue ethics at its core is fairly simple – I can acquire moral virtue through practices and developing a habit and through time, that practice becomes second nature. At that point, once that habit has become second nature – I can be said to have the virtue and by extension to be “that type of person.” For example – if I generally tell the truth, I am practicing honesty. While at first, this may be difficult at times (as being truthful in awkward or painful situations can be a challenge) however the more honest I am, the easier telling the truth becomes. Eventually, I will acquire a habit that is second nature – and at that point I have the virtue of honesty and can be said to be an honest person. We all have experience of recognizing virtue (or vice) in ourselves and those around us. It is because we have a sense of virtue that we can conversely recognize when someone does something out of character. Now, honesty is an easy but not trivial example. But the same corresponds to the claims Newt desires to make about work – his claim is that child labor laws are preventing poor children from developing the virtue of hard work.
Now, what is particularly dangerous about Gingrich’s statement is that it assumes 1. that the “really poor” do not work and thus 2. really poor children do not have any examples of hard work paying off unless its illegal. Behind this is the assumption that if the “really poor” did in fact work – then they wouldn’t be “really poor.” Gingrich’s inaccurate, simplistic and prejudicial assumptions about poverty itself masks and draws attention away from the bigger social questions – such as the social structures that perpetuate and sustain “poverty traps.” While we cannot accurately and justly assume that poor children have no models of hard work (unless it is illegal), we also must ask why it is and what the effects of that many poor children see models of extremely hard work but that hard work does not lead to just compensation/wages or a path out of poverty. As Economic Justice for All notes:
Too many women and minorities are locked into jobs with low pay, poor working conditions and little opportunity for career advancement. So long as we tolerate a situation in which people can work full time and still be below the poverty line—a situation common among those earning the minimum wage—too many will continue to be counted among the “working poor.” (199)
On the flip side – by equating wealth with ‘hard work,’ he makes sweeping and inaccurate assumptions about wealth providing “models of hard work,” for children. Where is the evidence that children of wealth develop habits of hard work as opposed to habits of entitlement and luxury?
Now, obviously there will be exceptions on both sides – however once again, there is a strong but inaccurate desire to connect wealth with “deserving it” (and the next step - holiness). It is inaccurate, offensive and perpetuates stereotypes about poverty. And we must, once again, take heed from Economic Justice For All and hold those seeking elected office to a higher standard.
The quality of the national discussion about our economic future will affect the poor most of all, in this country and throughout the world. The life and dignity of millions of men, women, and children hang in the balance. Decisions must be judged in light of what they do for the poor, what they do to the poor and what they enable the poor to do for themselves. The fundamental moral criterion for all economic decisions, policies, and institutions is this: They must be at the service of all people, especially the poor.