Paul Ryan needs to learn how to talk to black people as well as about them.
If his “Expanding Opportunity in America” plan had been written by black civil rights leaders in 1962, and not a Republican congressman in 2014, more than a few of us would be taken in. It’s hardly perfect, but it’s good, sincere work. The knee-jerk cynicism with which it has been greeted is dysfunctional.
Ryan wants to address multigenerational poverty with caseworker assistance. Poor people looking for assistance would be required to meet with these caseworkers, who would in turn help them get into the workforce and off welfare. Slate’s Jamelle Bouie and Jordan Weissman, among others, have told us to dismiss this as haughty paternalism, according to an argument that most people are only poor for brief spells anyway. But people of this mind typically argue against claims that poverty is cyclical, calling our attention to how socioeconomic mobility dwindles ever more in America.
What happened to the paeans to Thomas Piketty’s book, which argued it’s increasingly hard to get ahead in America? Or arguments that deindustrialization left uneducated poor men without opportunities for work (and even forced them to sell drugs)? Or, if it’s so mean to be paternal about poverty, what about how urgently so many have publicized studies showing that chronic poverty makes decision-making harder?
Somehow none of that matters now. If it’s about the Ryan plan, we are to note instead that the chronic poor are only about 1 in 30 of us, as Bouie did. But why is that not enough people to matter? Does that mean it’s paternalistic to focus policy on the legions of ex-cons coming home with no guidance, because there aren’t enough of them to matter? What about working poor moms with kids who aren’t sure how to climb out of the hole they’re in? How many is enough?
Many seem especially appalled that Ryan thinks there are people who could work but don’t. Supposedly, unemployment is always directly linked to the availability of jobs. However, that’s vastly oversimplified. Ryan is working from studies that have long shown that there is a contingent of people within the poor—of all colors—for whom the problem is not that they can’t work, but that they often don’t, at least not legally.
This is not new information. One has long been able to consult NYU professor Lawrence Mead’s coverage of Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston, or even the ethnographic data that sociologist William Julius Wilson openly notes in his work. There is plenty of ethnographic literature about inner cities that refers to what used to be called “corner men.” These men aren’t monsters; they just need guidance—call it a little paternalism?
As for whether funds for the poor would decrease, that must be discussed. But this is a proposal, not the Ten Commandments: It is designed to go through the vast transformation that becoming legislation entails. Yet nota bene: The doomsaying of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, which has been heavily critical of Ryan’s plan, is hardly infallible. Memories are fading about their dire predictions for mothers on welfare after the reforms of 1996, which were way off.
The real nut of the reflexive rejection of Ryan’s proposal is race. The smart take is that Ryan’s really thinking about poor black people, especially in the wake of that much maligned comment a few months back where he referred to men in “inner cities.” Ryan has said he misspoke, but I doubt it—he probably does think first about black inner-city men when he thinks about poverty.
And you know what? That’s fine!
Yep—he’s likely thinking more about The Wire than Breaking Bad. One might muse about that, I suppose, but the impulse to then reject anything he suggests as the mutterings of a bigot solves no problem. What matters is whether Ryan sincerely wants to help.
Early education, sentencing reform, recidivism reduction, regulatory reform with small-business starters in mind (i.e. think the rib joint owner in House of Cards if he were just starting out)—this is punitive right-wing boilerplate? Where is the promising alternative from, say, the Congressional Black Caucus? Who are their prominent policy wonks regularly presenting anti-poverty proposals this concentrated, innovative and wide-ranging?
I highly suspect that a great many ordinary black people—uninterested in the intelligentsia’s ideology battles and more interested in the nitty-gritty of bettering life for themselves and their own—would see hope in Ryan’s ideas. However, they don’t hear about them, and that’s partly Ryan’s fault. That’s because, as long as his proposal is mainly discussed by us of the chattering classes as an abstraction, the thing might as well never have existed.
I suggest that Ryan make a slate of speeches, or podcasts, or even pamphlets, written in accessible language, which would explain what his proposal contains. These must not be pitched as something sounding as abstract and loaded as “expanding opportunity” or “addressing poverty.” No speechy-sounding policy-paper words that bring Copland music to mind. Make it real.
Making It Better in Black Neighborhoods. Making Latino Neighborhoods Better. Making Sure You’re Never Poor Again. Maybe even Making Sure You’re Po’ No Mo’ (I’m kidding)! Anything to show that this about real people who are trying their best and could use some help.
Would this perhaps lead to more black people—shudder—voting Republican? Maybe, in which case our vote, in play again for the first time in almost 60 years, would matter more and be a source of policy leverage. (No, this Obama-voting writer is not shilling for anybody.)
But that’s a minor issue compared to the main thing, which is that we must embrace something, not just say some things. Ryan is genuinely trying to help, and too many smart people think they’re doing the right thing by telling us not to listen because, well, he’s a Republican, because he ran with Mitt Romney, because he associates poverty with black people more than with white people.
I’m sorry, but we should take it where we can get it. Black America should, in a way, just take advantage of the special attention. That’s part of what overcoming is about.