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Gingrich dared to speak truth on teens' work ethic

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
December 8, 2011 -- Updated 1215 GMT (2015 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Newt Gingrich said poor teens don't see people working so don't learn work habits
  • We have lost our work ethic, Navarrette says. Not just poor kids: richer kids lack purpose
  • Navarrette: Gingrich got in hot water talking about it, but it should not be a taboo subject

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN.com contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- You're a mean one, Mr. Gingrich.

Well, not really. Those of us who know Newt Gingrich tend to describe him as not only intelligent but also charming. Some members of the Washington press corps will admit as much, even though they usually don't agree with Gingrich's views.

No matter. Facts shouldn't get in the way of a good smear. And at the moment, the left is trying to dampen the appeal of the former House speaker and current GOP presidential front-runner by likening him to a green and hairy Dr. Seuss character who tries to steal Christmas.

Only in the real life version, Gingrich is supposedly at war with the poor for saying this: "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."

That narrative was front and center again this week as Gingrich explained his remarks to reporters gathered at a New York press conference, emphasizing that he believes the secret to getting America working again is to teach some Americans how to work.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

"I've been talking a little bit about the importance of work," Gingrich said, "particularly as it relates to people who are in areas where there are public housing where there are relatively few people who go to work."

At one point, Gingrich turned the tables on the reporters and asked them a question. He wanted to know, "How many of you earned some money doing something before you were 10 years old, whether it was cutting grass or babysitting or something?"

Talk to hugely successful people, Gingrich said, and most of them will say that they got an early start learning about jobs and responsibility and earning money for their labor. Tragically, that's not happening with many young people today. Gingrich pointed out that, for instance, among African-American teenagers, the unemployment rate is a staggering 43%.

Now, you can spin a statistic like that one of two ways. You can say these unemployed black teenagers are helpless victims and the system is working against them. Or you can say that many of these teenagers are unemployable because no one ever taught them the skills necessary to hold down a job.

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Gingrich thinks government should have a hand in creating a "pathway to work" so "people get in the work habit and learn the skills to be successful."

Bravo for Newt. Politicians don't usually speak this way, which is why so many of them have mastered the art of talking for hours without saying anything of importance. I can't imagine Mitt Romney saying these things; he's too busy telling people what they want to hear to tell them what they need to hear. This subject is as important as they come, and Gingrich deserves credit for kicking off the discussion, especially since he was sure to be pummeled for stating the obvious.

Here's the obvious: Americans have lost their work ethic, and some never had one to lose. They grow up -- or put more precisely, they're raised -- thinking of so many jobs as beneath them that they wake up one day not knowing how to do any job.

Gingrich was right on the money. But I would go further than he did. This isn't just a problem for black Americans; it's a problem for all Americans. In fact, as someone who speaks to groups all over the country and who spends a fair amount of time visiting high schools and colleges, 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, a desire to improve their lot and help their parents. Upper-middle class kids can be harder to motivate, especially if they've never been taught to work by their parents.

You think I'm kidding. I remember once seeing a 21-year-old struggle with how to hold a broom and sweep the floor. It wasn't his fault. No one had ever taught him how to do that chore -- or any other. Whenever I write about young people and the jobs they won't do, I hear from dozens of employers with stories of their own. The common theme in all those e-mails is that we've been too soft on our kids and haven't demanded enough from them, something we hardly notice because we've allowed illegal immigrants to pick up the slack.

Parents used to make their children work after school, or on weekends, or during summer break, to earn extra money to buy what they wanted. They gave them a list of chores to do to earn their allowances. No chores, no allowances. Today, parents find it easier to skip the chores and buy their kids what they want, which is no good for anyone and no good for society.

You know what is good? This conversation, and others like it. No subject this important should be off limits. After all, how do we fix a problem if it is considered taboo to even mention it?

Newt Gingrich had the courage to mention the problem of America's vanishing work ethic, and emphasize the need to restore it. And for that, Americans should be thankful.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.

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