Paul R. Lehman, Rep. Paul Ryan’s comments about poverty shows he know not what it is.

March 17, 2014 at 11:41 pm | Posted in equality, fairness, justice, poor, | 1 Comment
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Rep. Paul Ryan spoke to Bill Bennett recently about poverty in America and he cited Charles Murray, the author of the book, Coming Apart. Referring to Murray’s work, Ryan argued that poverty is, for the most part, the product of culture. More specifically, Ryan said that poverty is a “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.”Many people picked-up on the code phrases “inner cities,” “generations of men not working,” and “the culture of work,” as pertaining to African Americans. While those phrases might point to African Americans, the fact that Ryan chose to cite Murray expands the issue. Murray says in his book that African Americans were not brought into the mix regarding low IQ and race. He was writing primarily about people of European ancestry.
What is reflected in Ryan’s comments is the reality of what Murray wrote about, namely, the lack of communications and understanding of certain classes of Americans with other classes. In effect, Ryan speaks about something he knows very little of since he has never experienced it. Murray stated that: “a new upper class and a new lower class have diverged so far in core behaviors and values that they barely recognize their underlying American kinship.” So, unless Ryan has closer ties with the new lower class than generally known, he is represented in the new upper class. Murray cleared up the cause of the gap between the two classes when he stated that: “divergence that has nothing to do with income inequality and that has grown during good economic times and bad.”
Ryan spoke about poverty as though he was very familiar with it. But his comments seem to belie the ignorance that does not understands poverty. For example, logistics has much to do with people living in poverty. For the poor living in an inner city where no jobs are available, to travel to the suburbs where some low-paying jobs are available represents a big challenge—transportation. But transportation is just the beginning of the problems. If things like uniforms, special shoes, and equipment are involved, from where will the money come to address those needs? In essence, although some jobs are available, the people wanting and needing those jobs may not have a way to get to them.
Even is jobs are available and in easy access to the poor, they have other important elements to consider before taking a job. For example, if a person is receiving public assistance each month, what will taking a job mean as far as income is concerned? Concerns like child care, food, clothes, transportation etc… must be considered. Sometimes, the person and his or her family is better off not taking the job if it will result in a lower level of living. The problem presented here is not whether the person wants to work or not, it is whether he or she can afford to take the job.
For Ryan to assume that people placed themselves in poverty because they did not want to work is a disconnect from the reality of the situation. Ryan, evidently, has forgotten or is ignorant of the part that our government played in creating poverty, and underlining it with ethnic prejudice and discrimination. But aside from the ethnic biases underscored by history, Ryan seems to be out of touch with reality relative to poverty. Again, Murray gives us some insight into why Ryan does not fully understand poverty or the poor: “The top and bottom of white America increasingly live in different cultures.” What created this difference is the way the two segments of society separate themselves. According to Murray, the gap is caused by “the powerful upper class living in enclaves surrounded by their own kind, ignorant about life in mainstream America and the lower class suffering from erosions of family and community life that strike at the heart of the pursuit of happiness.”
So, whether Ryan’s code phrases were meant to focus on African Americans or not, the fact remains that he, according to Murray, the author he cited, is “ignorant about life in mainstream America.” One question we might want to consider is how can Ryan represent the poor and working class people of his state when he is ignorant of their real-life situation? Another question is how can the poor and working-class people think that Ryan has their best interest at heart when he has no knowledge of what their best interest is? None-the-less, Ryan maintains that: “So there’s a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”
Since Ryan is, in effect, ignorant of the real problems of poverty, one wonders how he can realistically address them. Elias Isquith, a writer on stated concerning Ryan’s interview that Ryan was on the Bennett show “in part to promote his recent “survey” of the government’s many anti-poverty initiatives, nearly all of which Ryan believes do more to perpetuate poverty than reduce or eliminate it…” He adds, “a conclusion that’s been strongly criticized by others, including some of the academics Ryan references in the study itself.”
So, included in Ryan’s plan to deal with the culture of poverty problem is to cut many of the government services and let charities and sports fans get involved. Ryan needs to go back to school and re-read American history; especially the period starting with the late 1970’s when the poor, working-class, and middle class came under attack by business. He needs to learn how the culture of poverty was really created by people loosing jobs, pensions, salaries, and other benefits that have yet to be recovered and possibly never will be. He needs to learn how to relate and communicate with the majority of the people he presumably represents.


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  1. Excellent comments. It is probably easier to believe poverty is a choice if you’ve always enjoyed the benefit of choosing.

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