If Paul Ryan wants to speak out about poverty, he'll need a history lesson first
“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.” — Rep. Paul Ryan.
In politics a “dog whistle” is defined as coded racial language designed to inflame voters who are likely to find motivation in racially charged attacks. While overt racism is immediately pounced upon by the media, racism clouded in more subjective language becomes an exercise in trying to nail Jello to a wall. Paul Ryan’s comments are exactly that: racism shrouded in concern for the “culture of inner city men.”
Ryan’s recent comments have been compared to Newt Gringrich’s remarks during the 2012 Presidential race when he referred to Obama as the “food-stamp President.” Gringrich was sounding the dog whistle to ignite the loyal base of republicans who hate their tax dollars going to poor black folks. Black folks who rich, white, republicans see as nothing but lazy and unwilling to work.
So when republican candidates talk about “the poor” they are not referring to a broader category that includes a large group of Americans. They narrow “the poor” to “inner-city poor” which often translates to black poor.
Ryan cannot stop talking about poverty. It has been his focus since late last year. “I want to figure out a way for conservatives to come up with solutions to poverty,” he has said, “I have to do this.” In his quest for a solution he has attacked Obamacare and other programs as “poverty traps.” He has released a report deriding the existing federal anti-poverty programs but has yet to offer any clear solutions.
While Ryan’s motives are not quite clear: Is he truly concerned about poverty or is he simply pandering for votes? What is clear is that his comment above shows someone who utterly has no understanding of what it takes to fix poverty.
The Culture of poverty doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. As Jamelle Bouie put it, “Our realities are shaped by a mutually reinforcing matrix of culture, civil society, law, and individual choice (among other things).” It is Ryan’s job as a lawmaker to understand the policies of the past and how we got to where we are today. Inner-city culture is a result not a reason for the persistent poverty of inner-cities.
One glaring example of policymakers failing to understand what it takes to cure poverty is present in Detroit, Michigan. About 80% of Detroit’s residents are black. Detroit is the largest city to declare bankruptcy in the United States. Over 42 percent of Detroiters live in poverty and the average income is just over $23,000 a year. The average income nationally is just over $53,600. The unemployment rate in Detroit is nearly 50%. To Paul Ryan it is a representative “inner-city culture” of generations of lazy black men.
This is where Ryan could use a little history lesson to understand why Detroit is in such dire straits. Detroit’s rise and fall can, in part, be tied to the auto industry and a republican response to high labor costs. Republicans introduced legislation (NAFTA) in the 1990’s to allow manufactures to set up plants overseas and ship parts back to the United States. Those manufacturing jobs were permanently lost.
As a result many of the plants in Detroit were shuttered. The AFL-CIO estimates as many as 700,000 jobs were lost initially. In 2004, twenty years after its implementation, an estimate one million jobs have been lost. Most of the jobs lost were directly in Detroit once known as the “car capital of the world.”
Detroit is beginning to see some signs of life after bankruptcy. New jobs are being introduced. But they are not manufacturing jobs. The jobs require high-tech skills, skills former line workers in Detroit don’t possess. But they could learn the skills needed to secure the new jobs being offered. Yet, Republican Governor Rick Snyder proposed funding a program to bring in 50,000 skilled immigrants rather than offer training for the unemployed Detroit residents.
In this proposal there is nothing to help the unemployed residents of Detroit. They are simply brushed aside like the trash that blows around the streets of Detroit. It is this proposal that Snyder intends to present to Paul Ryan and his republican-controlled house in the coming months.
This could be the very opportunity Ryan needs to show his commitment to changing the inner-city culture. This is a chance for Ryan to stand up for the poor in Detroit and tell them he is on their side. He could reject this plan and offer a new plan to train residents displaced by the outsourcing of jobs.
Is Ryan blowing his dog whistle to bring out the republican base in 2014? Or is Ryan serious about fixing poverty in the inner city? We’ll soon find out.