Paul Ryan Gets it Twisted on Poverty And Black Men

Terrance Heath

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has become the latest right-winger to blame black poverty on “culture” and character. Just as he got it backwards on families and poverty, Paul Ryan gets it twisted on poverty and black men.

Ryan went on William Bennett’s “Morning in America” radio show to promote his recent “survey” of anti-poverty programs, and to preview his legislative agenda to cutting funding and case loads for anti-poverty programs. Ryan cited the work of Charles Murray, a conservative social scientist and co-author of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, who believes genetic differences make African-Americans less intelligent than whites and that, “a lot of poor people are born lazy.”

Ryan then launched into a dog-whistle politics take on poverty, using coded language about “inner-city culture” to blame poverty on lazy, immoral black people, without coming right out and saying so.

“We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working, just generations of men not even thinking of working, or learning the value and the culture of work,” said Ryan. “So there’s a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”

Ryan later backpedaled on his remarks, telling Crew of 42’s Lauren Victoria Burke, “This has nothing to do whatsoever with race,” and that his words were “taken out of context.”  But Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) called Ryan out. “Let’s be clear,” Lee said in  when Mr. Ryan says ‘inner city,’ when he says, ‘culture,’ these are simply code words for what he really means: ‘black.’”

Ryan has reached for his dog whistle before; once when he told a reporter that the solution to America’s “crime problem” was to go into inner cities and “teach people good discipline, good character,” and again when he complained that “urban voters” gave Obama the 2012 election.

Rep. Lee hit the nail on the head. Paul Ryan’s attempt to wriggle off the hook drives it home.

Ryan’s remarks on “inner-city” men has a ring of the other shoe dropping. The first dropped when Ryan released his survey of the war on poverty. In the introduction, Ryan writes that, “the single most important determinant of poverty is family structure,” and cites Daniel Moynihan’s 1965 report identifying “the breakdown of the family” as the primary cause of poverty in the black community.  So it’s no surprise that Ryan has returned to the subject of black poverty.

Paul Ryan is indeed talking about blacks. In his remarks to Burke, Ryan went on to say:

“This isn’t a race based comment it’s a breakdown of families, it’s rural poverty in rural areas, and talking about where poverty exists — there are no jobs and we have a breakdown of the family.  This has nothing to do with race.”

When Ryan addresses poverty in rural areas, where the faces of poverty are mostly white, the problem is not that people won’t work, but that “there are no jobs.” When it comes to the “inner city” poor, it’s a different story.

Recent statistics pull Ryan up short. A 2006 poll by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Foundation, and Harvard University showed that “Black men report the same ambitions as most Americans — for career success, a loving marriage, children, respect.” 

  • Black men want to work. Three in four men in the Washington Post/Kaiser/Harvard survey said they value being successful in a career. More than white men or black women.
  • Black men value marriage and family. More than half in the Washington Post/Kaiser/Harvard poll said they placed a high value on marriage.
  • Black men believe in the American Dream. Nine in ten in the Washington Post/Kaiser/Harvard study would tell their sons they can become anything they want to in life.

Contrary to what Ryan and a host of other right-wing pundits believe, black “inner city” men want to work. But the reality is that there are no jobs. The 30-year slow bleed of manufacturing jobs out of American cities and out of the country hit black men the hardest, because black men were over-represented in those jobs.

In many cases, those were the best jobs — and the only good jobs — black men could get. Good wages and benefits, fought for and won by labor unions, meant that men without a college education — men like my father — could lift their families from sharecropping to middle-class status in one generation, and give their children opportunities they only dreamed of. Now, good jobs with livable wages have been replaced by low-wage jobs with no “dignity of work,” and no hope of affording even basic necessities, let alone a chance at a better life.

As I wrote last week, the “breakdown”of the family is not the cause of poverty. It’s a symptom. Paul Ryan can spare black men his lectures on character and the “dignity of work.” Bring good jobs, with food benefits and liable wages back home, and we’ll take care of the rest.

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