by Charles M. Blow
Paul Ryan continues to be flogged for disturbing comments he made last week about men “in our inner cities” and their “culture” of not working.
In a radio interview with Bill Bennett, Ryan said, “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”
Reactions to the comment were swift and brutal.
Representative Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, said in a statement, “Let’s be clear, when Mr. Ryan says ‘inner city,’ when he says, ‘culture,’ these are simply code words for what he really means: ‘black.’ ”
Ryan has agreed to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus, of which Lee’s a member and which found his remarks “highly offensive.”
But at a town hall meeting on Wednesday, Ryan was rebuked by one of his own constituents, a black man from Mount Pleasant, Wis., named Alfonso Gardner.
Gardner told Ryan, “The bottom line is this: Your statement was not true.” He continued, “That’s a code word for ‘black.’ ”
But instead of cushioning his comments, Ryan shot back, “There was nothing whatsoever about race in my comments at all — it had nothing to do with race.”
That would have been more believable if Ryan hadn’t prefaced his original comments by citing Charles Murray, who has essentially argued that blacks are genetically inferior to whites and whom the Southern Poverty Law Center labels a “white nationalist.” (The center’s definition: “White nationalist groups espouse white supremacist or white separatist ideologies, often focusing on the alleged inferiority of nonwhites.”)
Whatever Ryan meant by men “in our inner cities” and their culture, the comment obscures the vast dimension of poverty in America and seeks an easy scapegoat for it.
According to the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (in Ryan’s home state), the gap between the poverty rate in inner cities and that in rural areas and small towns is not as great as one might suspect. The inner city poverty rate is 19.7 percent, and the poverty rate in rural areas and small towns is 16.5 percent.
Furthermore, as Mark R. Rank, a professor of social welfare at Washington University, argued several months ago in The New York Times:
“Few topics in American society have more myths and stereotypes surrounding them than poverty, misconceptions that distort both our politics and our domestic policy making. They include the notion that poverty affects a relatively small number of Americans, that the poor are impoverished for years at a time, that most of those in poverty live in inner cities, that too much welfare assistance is provided and that poverty is ultimately a result of not working hard enough. Although pervasive, each assumption is flat-out wrong.”
His research, he noted, indicates that “40 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 60 will experience at least one year below the official poverty line during that period” and “54 percent will spend a year in poverty or near poverty.” Rank concluded, “Put simply, poverty is a mainstream event experienced by a majority of Americans.”
By suggesting that laziness is more concentrated among the poor, inner city or not, we shift our moral obligation to deal forthrightly with poverty. When we insinuate that poverty is the outgrowth of stunted culture, that it is almost always invited and never inflicted, we avert the gaze from the structural features that help maintain and perpetuate poverty — discrimination, mass incarceration, low wages, educational inequities — while simultaneously degrading and dehumanizing those who find themselves trapped by it.
Other parts of Ryan’s original interview were on target, when he talked about the value and dignity of work and the way that work builds character. Work doesn’t always alleviate poverty, in part because some people are forced to work for less than a living wage, though work does bring dignity.
But this is in part the problem, and danger, of people like Ryan: There is an ever-swirling mix of inspiration and insult, where the borders between the factual and the fudged are intentionally blurred and cover is given for corrosive ideas.
Ryan is “one of the good guys,” a prominent Republican operative explained to me last week. Maybe so, but even good people are capable of saying and believing bad things, and what Ryan said was horrific.