What Paul Ryan Gets Wrong About ‘Inner-City’ Poverty

If there's deep poverty in our urban centers, it's not because of culture, it's because of racism and public policy.

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It was late last year when Paul Ryan couldn’t stop talking about poverty. “I want to figure out a way for conservatives to come up with solutions to poverty,” he said, as reported in a Buzzfeed feature on his political evolution, “I have to do this.”

Since then, he has announced his plan to take a “new direction in the war on poverty.” He has attacked Obamacare and other programs as “poverty traps”, endorsed proposals from other Republicans like Utah Senator Mike Lee and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and released a report (criticized as misleading) that outlines the problems with existing federal anti-poverty programs.

But, for as much as Ryan is quick to criticize and tout the need for a new approach (he has yet to offer alternatives of his own), his rhetoric is equally mired in the past. To wit, during an appearance on Bill Bennett’s “Morning in America” this Wednesday, the Budget Committee chairman indulged one of the oldest strains of conservative thinking on poverty, i.e., the poor are poor because they are lazy. Here is ThinkProgress with the quote:

“[W]e want people to reach their potential and so the dignity of work is very valuable and important and we have to re-emphasize work and reform our welfare programs, like we did in 1996,” Ryan told Bennett. “We have got this 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, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”

I should be clear: Ryan’s target isn’t “the poor”—a broad category that includes a large swath of Americans—as much as it’s the “inner city poor,” which for most people, translates to the black poor.

Now, it’s clear why Ryan reached for this example: Last year, with the help of Bob Woodson, a conservative community organizer, he toured the nation’s inner cities, visiting with the families and communities who have been shut out from opportunity and advancement. By all accounts, this was an eye-opening experience for the congressman, and the inspiration for his current focus on poverty. He saw a problem, and—as a self-proclaimed “wonk”—immediately moved to solve it.

Which is what makes this comment so troubling. Our realities are shaped by a mutually reinforcing matrix of culture, civil society, law, and individual choice (among other things). If America has a “car culture,” it has as much to do with our rugged sense of individualism as it does with our sprawling geography, and a government that made highways an essential part of our transportation infrastructure. To look at our attachment to cars and proclaim “culture” is to miss most of the story, and if you’re an advocate for mass transit, you handicap your efforts to change the status quo. After all, culture is hard thing to change.

The same goes for Ryan and poverty. Inner-city poverty didn’t just happen, it was built. It’s the job of a policymaker to understand the full scope of what that means, from the blueprints of past policies, to their implementation, to the forces that drove the issues to begin with. And in the case of urban poverty, the issue was racism.

If the industrial cities of the Midwest and Northeast are heavily segregated—places like Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland, and Philadelphia—it’s because they were made that way, through law, policy, and violence. Starved of public and private investment—from schools and libraries to home loans and business development—they collapsed into the same dysfunction we see whenever we isolate a community from general prosperity, and punish its members for trying to escape. And if—as conservatives routinely argue—the welfare state plays a role here, it’s to deepen the problems, not cause them. You can’t blame West Baltimore on AFDC.

But Ryan wants to. He wants to blame social programs for the problems of the inner city. He wants to blame “culture,” the argument of men like Charles Murray, who believe in a black “pathology” that condemns urban communities to failure. What they fail to understand is that this, again, was built. For the better part of a century, the American system taught black children that their work was futile and their lives, meaningless. Black pathology was what this country wanted and black pathology is what it tried to engineer. That Ryan can look at the decay and decry the “generations of men” who need to learn the “value of work” is a testament to American success in marginalizing a whole class of people.

Of course, there’s no such thing as “black pathology.” Instead, there are humans doing the best they can with what they have. Sometimes this is good, sometimes it’s bad, and sometimes it’s neither. And if Ryan would look closer at the communities he’s trying to reach, he’d see countless people participating in the “culture of work.” He doesn’t have to look far, either. In Washington D.C., he could ride an 80 bus to the Capitol, early on a weekday morning. There, he’d be packed next to men and women coming from the other side of the city to work crappy jobs at long hours for the sake of their families. They don’t need lectures about the “value of work”; they need material support for their livelihoods.

I don’t think Paul Ryan was insincere about the revelation of his experience in low-income communities, but—policy-wise—I’m not sure he did anything but confirm his biases. He walked into these neighborhoods a right-wing wonk convinced of his ideas, and came out of them a right-wing wonk convinced of his ideas, and committed to a conservative, ahistorical vision of what created them.