Newt Gingrich’s idea of firing inner-city public school janitors and hiring poor students to do their work is getting quite a response—most of it dismissive but some of it respectful

Here’s the thing, though. What Gingrich is basically proposing is an inner-city youth jobs program. Now, where have I heard of that kind of program before? Oh yeah, now I remember.

In 1993, as part of his economic stimulus package, Bill Clinton proposed a summer youth jobs program. Though it eventually died in the Senate because of a GOP filibuster the measure passed the House. It did so over the objections of House Republicans, among them then House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich. At a news conference after the vote Gingrich had this to say:

Now, if I had $19 billion, the President called and said, “I really want to stimulate the economy this spring. I really want kids to get real jobs doing real things,” you could easily create, for example, a tax credit for this summer that allowed small businesses to go out and hire 700,000 kids direct in a real private sector job doing real things, learning a real trade.

What are you going to get? You’re going to get the New York bureaucracy and the New York Public Employees Union reaching out to create a make-work game for three or four or five thousand kids. I’d much rather have those kids going to a local grocery store or a local restaurant or a local dry cleaner or any kind of real job in the private sector doing real work and learning how to get ahead in the private sector. Because the work habits of small business are incredibly more demanding than the work habits of a public bureaucracy summer program. So, I’d just start with that premise. If what you want to do is employ 700,000 kids, you would get much more bang for your buck by having a tax credit targeted this summer to the city.

Note what Gingrich is saying—and not saying–here. He is not objecting to the Clinton youth jobs program because it uses federal resources; he would happily fund such a program, he says, if it were in the form of a tax credit to small businesses (which would, by the way, have had precisely the same effect on the deficit as Clinton’s direct spending bill). Rather, his objection is that Clinton’s program would hire kids to work in the public rather than the private sector, the difference being that the latter represents “real work” that is “incredibly more demanding than the work habits of a public bureaucracy.”

Okay, fine. You can argue that public sector jobs don’t teach the kind of disciplined work habits private sector jobs do. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not; in any event that was his argument in 1993.

But today Gingrich is saying something completely different: that hiring kids to work as janitors in schools (schools being, of course, government bureaucracies) is excellent training for life. “The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools, they’d begin the process of rising.”

Why, then, was Gingrich against government jobs programs for poor teens in 1993 but favors them in 2011? Could it be that he opposes them only when they’re offered up by Democrats, and supports them only when they involve firing unionized workers? Banish the thought.

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Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. A former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, he is writing a book on America’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence.