Apparently Rep. Jack Kingston has taken it upon himself to pick up where Mitt Romney left off in attempting to establish the GOP brand as officially synonymous with disdain for poor people. In a recent speech Kingston reportedly said of kids benefiting from free-lunch programs, “Why don’t you have the kids pay a dime, pay a nickel to instill in them that there is, in fact, no such thing as a free lunch? Or maybe sweep the floor of the cafeteria.”
Where to start with what’s wrong with this comment?
First off, if poor children had a spare dime or nickel lying around, they wouldn’t be partaking in free-lunch programs. I can’t believe that it is possible that in 2013 we still have to explain the basic concept of poverty to adults—particularly adults responsible for drafting policy that affects those living in poverty.
Second, unlike a lot of progressives, and particularly minorities who identify as progressive, I have never considered “personal responsibility” dirty words. Unlike Rep. Charles Rangel I have no problem with the hotly debated legal requirement that adults living in New York public housing who are not working full time, students or disabled be required to engage in voluntary community service. Adults should be held accountable (or personally responsible) for choices they make, good or bad. That could be someone like me signing up for student-loan debt to finance my education, other students signing up for work-study programs to finance theirs or adults giving back to their community and taxpayers who are helping to finance the living situation they wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise.
But the words “personal responsibility” should almost always be limited to adults, and to those teens nearing adulthood who have the capacity to make informed decisions, good and bad, and to be held accountable for them accordingly.
And even with teens, while a 16-year-old can make an informed choice to kill someone—and I believe should be held accountable—he has no choice regarding whether he is born into a family that is incapable of feeding him, or a family in which his father will become a member of Congress who says incredibly ill-informed, offensive things about the poor.
What’s even more disturbing about Kingston’s comment is that he is not the first high-profile Republican to make such a remark. During the 2012 Republican primary, then-candidate Newt Gingrich called child labor laws “stupid” and argued that schools should use children as janitors. Of course it is unlikely that the kids he envisioned were kids like his own, or of his fellow presidential candidates or of Rep. Kingston. So while children of privilege would be taking SAT-prep classes, learning foreign languages and benefiting from all of the other extras in which their parents indulge them to provide them with a lifetime head-start over poor children, these poor kids would get to fall further behind by cleaning up after their more privileged peers.
Here’s another idea for Kingston and Gingrich. How about doing something substantive to help these children break the cycle of poverty so they don’t have to listen to you threatening to use their kids for slave labor a generation from now? How about supporting providing these kids with comprehensive sexual education, low-cost contraception and loan-free financial college aid so these kids can have a real chance to compete with yours someday?
But then again, maybe seeing poor kids have a real shot at competing with their kids is what Kingston, Gingrich and others like them are really worried about. After all, if America became an equal playing field, the halls of power would probably look a lot different than they do now.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.