Paul Ryan Says Poor Are Victims, But Blames Them For Being Poor

Dave Johnson

House Speaker Paul Ryan in an NPR interview Monday acknowledged that the poor are victims of our economic system. The interview sounds reasonable, almost soothing, until you examine what Ryan is really saying.

After acknowledging that poverty is systemic, he turns around and blames the poor themselves as being personally – even morally – responsible for being poor. He implies the poor are just lazy. He cited addiction, lack of skills, and, of course, government handouts as the real causes of poverty. He said raising the minimum wage would not help. His soothing-sounding words are actually quite radical and extreme.

The Interview

Ryan was interviewed on Monday’s NPR’s Morning Edition by Steve Inskeep about his ideas on helping people get out of poverty.

When asked about people born into poverty who can’t get out of poverty, Ryan responds “That’s right … you go look at the country and the conditions, you’re just as likely to stay poor today as you were if you were born into poverty 50 years ago. … There are people out there fighting poverty … that do well, succeed but for government I think in many cases they could do more.”

Q: You’ve argued that welfare “is keeping people away from work, it disincentives work.”

Ryan: “Right. Yeah.”

Q: Do you want to cut welfare?

Ryan: “The smarter thing to do is to customize a benefit to a person’s particular needs. … Maybe this person needs addiction counseling, or maybe she needs a GED or transportation or something. You customize the benefits for her particular needs with the proper accountability.”

Asked about low minimum wages keeping people in poverty, Ryan rejects raising the minimum wage as a “one-size-fits-all solution.” Inskeep asks, “Why not do something that raises wages?”

Ryan: “Well, skills. I think when you raise the minimum wage … you’ll lose over a million jobs … So you don’t want to take away those entry-level jobs that give people hard and soft skills they need just to learn how to do work. Every person has a different problem, sometimes a person has an even deeper problem like addiction or something like that.”

What Ryan Is Saying

Ryan begins by acknowledging that the “country and the conditions” are what is keeping people poor. He says if you “look at the country and the conditions, you’re just as likely to stay poor today as you were if you were born into poverty 50 years ago.” But then he says there are people who are fighting poverty whose efforts would succeed “but for the government”

Ryan then contradicts what he said about “the country and the conditions,” and blames the poor themselves for being poor. They don’t have skills, they don’t have an education, they are addicted, and they are so lazy that a little bit of “welfare” keeps them from looking for work. He says they need to “learn how to do work.”

Several states have bought in to this “blame-the-poor” mentality to the point where they require drug testing before a person can get assistance. Earlier this year Think Progress surveyed these programs and found that despite the cost of this drug testing, several states did not find even one person testing positive. The national total was 321 positive tests, out of the millions in circumstances where they need help.

So why does Ryan bring up “addiction” when talking about poverty? For the same reason he talks about government and “welfare” causing people to not bother to look for work or even “learn how to do work.” These kinds of words point the finger at people for personal, moral failings, and contribute to a story that the poor are really just bad people who do not deserve our assistance.

Minimum Wage

Ryan also implies that people in poverty are lazy, saying “welfare” is “keeping people away from work.” But because of the decrease in the purchasing power of the minimum wage, many working people, even those working in full-time jobs, make so little that they qualify for “food stamps” and other government aid.

This chart, “Share of workers receiving public assistance for the poor, by industry” from The Washington Post Wonkblog report, “When work isn’t enough to keep you off welfare and food stamps,” tells the story:


“Share of workers in each field who rely on at least one program among Medicaid/CHIP, TANF, the EITC or food stamps. UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education”

According to the Wonkblog report, “The problem, according to this picture, isn’t that poor people won’t work — it’s that the work they do can’t sustain them.”

Ryan also says “when you raise the minimum wage … you’ll lose over a million jobs.” But a National Employment Law Project (NELP) report from May, titled “Raise Wages, Kill Jobs? Seven Decades of Historical Data Find No Correlation Between Minimum Wage Increases and Employment Levels,” found that,

The results were clear: these basic economic indicators show no correlation between federal minimum-wage increases and lower employment levels, even in the industries that are most impacted by higher minimum wages. To the contrary, in the substantial majority of instances (68 percent) overall employment increased after a federal minimum-wage increase.

So raising the minimum wage, giving working people more money to spend in local stores, not only doesn’t kill jobs but increases demand in the economy enough that it might actually cause those stores to hire people. Who could have predicted?

Plus, never mind that increasing the minimum wage to a “living wage” level would end the need for public assistance for millions of people.

Note that “welfare” as Ryan and Republicans describe it – giving cash to people who don’t work – ended with the 1996 “welfare reform”. Today people – overwhelmingly single mothers with children – can get minimal temporary cash assistance, minimal food assistance and health care. Some can get housing subsidies and a few other forms of aid.

The results of the 1996 experiment of ending “welfare” have not been good. Studies show it has “failed,” had a “negative impact,” has “shortened lives,” led to “less education,” and “created a system rife with racial biases.”

Personal Responsibility

Ryan is repeating the old “personal responsibility” language conservatives have developed to shift people’s thinking about government and democracy away from the idea that We the People are in this together, toward a selfish idea that we should all be on our own. Of course, this leaves individuals defenseless against the powerful forces of aggregated wealth and power.

Paul Ryan, like many Republicans, is an admirer of Ayn Rand, who taught that society consists of a few “producers” and lots of “looters” and “parasites.” Rand taught that democracy is a “statist” “collectivism” of those parasitic looters, that it is wrong for people to help other people, altruism is evil and government is “monstrously evil,” “the political expression of altruism.”

Ryan’s words on “welfare” fit right into this radical, extreme framework, but in a more soothing-sounding way.

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