Wisconsin congressman and former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan is on the hot seat again. This time, however, he may have contracted a terminal case of political “foot in mouth disease” after statements on a radio talk show appearance that poverty in America is a product of a tailspin of culture in “our inner cities.”
Ryan, speaking on right wing talk show host Bill Bennett’s “Morning in America” program, claimed that poverty is caused by “men who are not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.”
The outcry was immediate, resounding, and hypercritical of the 15 year Republican congressman’s remarks, prompting Ryan to call a hasty news conference Thursday morning to apologize and disavow his “inarticulate” remarks, claiming that they were taken out of context.
Politicians speaking under pressure, in debates and press conferences, can be forgiven for an occasional lapse or verbal malaprop. When politicians make these kinds of of “unforced errors” in a casual conversation with a friendly interviewer, however, the statements reveal the underlying belief systems those politicians carry around with them. These underlying belief systems govern the behavior and decisions of the believer.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan’s running mate in the 2012 presidential election, destroyed his campaign’s chances of winning the presidency with his “47 percent” comment, which was made in a private, off-the-record speech to big donors to his campaign. That unforced error disclosed what candidate Romney really thought about the American people…that 47 percent of the American people would never vote for him because they wanted to continue to enjoy life on welfare, or while enjoy federal benefits to make their lives easier.
Ryan’s comments bespeak the same orientation, that poor people are poor because they are lazy and do not want to work for themselves and their families, but the use of the term “inner city” was especially offensive to people of color because the term has been used for decades as a veiled reference ethnic and racial minorities in the United States.
Stung by widespread criticism, Ryan called a press conference in which he said that he “just went off” when Bennett asked him about culture, adding that his statements had “nothing to do with race whatsoever.”
Critics, beginning with California Representative Barbara Lee, have called Ryan’s comments thinly veiled racial attack. Ryan’s rebuttal has been to point out the recent increases in rural poverty as opposed to the chronic problems of urban poverty.
There are, however, distinct differences between urban and rural poverty. Urban poverty is often multi-generational, and the urban poor are generally concentrated in overcrowded, deteriorating conditions, with substandard housing stocks, and little or no access to jobs. Rural poverty is more dispersed. The rural poor are more widely distributed in lower population density areas and, while they have even less access to job prospects, their costs of living are substantially less than the urban poor experience. There are also fewer broken family situations in among the rural poor, unless you look back to the Great Depression years, when millions of men left their families behind as they went looking for work. It is easier to be poor in Lake Woebegone than it is in Harlem.
Another factor affecting the increase numbers of rural poor is that it is becoming increasingly impossible for the urban poor to live in high income, high cost cities like New York, Boston, Chicago or San Francisco, all cities where ongoing “gentrification” renovations have forced long-time urban residents into the suburbs or out into the countryside when their apartments are gentrified.
Paul Ryan, who has taken on the issue of poverty in America as one of his main concerns, appears ignorant of the job equation. In order to work, you have to have a job and good paying blue collar jobs have largely disappeared from America’s urban centers, where thought workers now comprise an average of 40 percent of the work force. Twenty years ago, they represented 20 percent of the work force, which means that “hand work” job opportunities, such as manual labor, have been cut in half over a 20 year period. Another uncomfortable fact is that, despite protestations to the contrary, automated has elimination of millions of those manual labor jobs, and a substantial number of white collar positions, rendering many formerly employed people unmarketable in the current economic environment.
Despite his “inarticulate” reply to Bill Bennett’s question, Ryan’s political actions indicate that he spoke from his heart, as he continues his attacks on federal anti-poverty programs and food assistance programs, claiming that that anti-poverty programs contribute to the nation’s high poverty rate creating what Ryan calls “the poverty trap.”
The persistent attacks by Republican theorists against the Johnson era War on Poverty programs are based on the theory that, if there is still poverty in America, then those programs must have failed. The problem with this analysis is that most of the federal anti-poverty programs are not designed to end poverty but only to prevent people who are poor from suffering more than they have to by counteracting the effects of poverty rather than addressing the causes of poverty.
Paul Ryan needs to learn that poverty is an effect of the economy, not something caused by government, if he wants to get off this hot seat.
By Alan M. Milner
(Keep up with me on twitter at @alanmilner)