The Campaign Spot

Newt’s ‘Crazy Ideas’ Sometimes Turn Out to Be Not So Crazy

With Newt Gingrich making it more or less official he’s dipping his toe in the water, let us turn back the clock to one of his most unfairly maligned ideas . . .

Back in 1995, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich suggested giving laptops to homeless people as a way of lifting them out of poverty. For this, he was widely derided by all wise-thinking people as a lunatic.

His idea has continued to be mocked, in the Economist (2005), and by liberal bloggers (2007).

Of course, by 2005, the idea of giving laptops to poor children around the world was considered a stylish and innovative approach to raising living standards and providing better educational opportunities:

If tech luminary Nicholas Negroponte has his way, the pale light from rugged, hand-cranked $100 laptops will illuminate homes in villages and townships throughout the developing world, and give every child on the planet a computer of their own by 2010. The MIT Media Lab and Wired magazine founder stood shoulder to shoulder with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to unveil the first working prototype of the “$100 laptop” — currently more like $110 — at the U.N. World Summit on the Information Society here Wednesday. The Linux-based machine instantly became the hit of the show, and Thursday saw diplomats and dignitaries, reporters and TV cameras perpetually crowded around the booth of One Laptop Per Child — Negroponte’s nonprofit — craning for a glimpse of the toy-like tote.

And today, a significant number of the homeless have cellular phones, some of which effectively function as small computers. The benefits are obvious:

“Having a phone isn’t even a privilege anymore — it’s a necessity,” said Rommel McBride, 50, who spent about six years on the streets before recently being placed in a city housing program. He has had a mobile phone for a year. “A cellphone is the only way you can call to keep up with your food stamps, your housing application, your job. When you’re living in a shelter or sleeping on the streets, it’s your last line of communication with the world.”

Advocates who work with the District’s homeless estimate that 30 percent to 45 percent of the people they help have cellphones. A smaller number have e-mail accounts, and some blog to chronicle their lives on the streets.

When Laura Zeilinger, deputy director of program operations for the D.C. Department of Human Services, conducted housing assessments of a couple of thousand people living on city streets last summer, she was surprised by how many gave her cellphone numbers and e-mail addresses.

And as a Corner reader observed:

One of the cruel side effects of not having an address is that it’s hard to get timely responses to job applications. Cell phones solve that problem, and as a consequence, probably make it MORE likely that homeless people can rise out of their condition, than they imply wasted resources. After all, how many broke college graduates charge a nice “interview suit” on their first credit card as an investment in their future?

A crazy, widely derided idea in 1995 turns out to be prescient, creative, and perhaps even visionary.

But of course, in certain eyes, every idea that comes from a prominent Republican is, ispo facto, stupid.


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