House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) caused a stir yesterday with provocative comments on “inner-city” men who are “not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” By way of a follow-up, it’s worth noting that the congressman attempted to clarify matters in a statement.
Ryan issued this response to NBC News this morning:
“After reading the transcript of yesterday morning’s interview, it is clear that I was inarticulate about the point I was trying to make. I was not implicating the culture of one community – but of society as a whole. We have allowed our society to isolate or quarantine the poor rather than integrate people into our communities. The predictable result has been multi-generational poverty and little opportunity. I also believe the government’s response has inadvertently created a poverty trap that builds barriers to work. A stable, good-paying job is the best bridge out of poverty.“The broader point I was trying to make is that we cannot settle for this status quo and that government and families have to do more and rethink our approach to fighting poverty. I have witnessed amazing people fighting against great odds with impressive success in poor communities. We can learn so much from them, and that is where this conversation should begin.”
For those who’ve heard Ryan’s comments yesterday on a conservative radio talk-radio show, it’s clear this is quite a bit different from his original sentiment.
I’ve seen some defenses of Ryan – Dave Weigel, among others, published a piece this morning, before the congressman’s office issued its clarification – arguing that it’s a mistake to assume his comments about poverty are necessarily racially charged.
It’s understandable that perspectives will vary, but Ryan didn’t just say there’s endemic poverty in inner cities; he said there’s a “culture” in inner cities of men who don’t even want to work. The Wisconsin Republican said today he wasn’t “implicating the culture of one community,” but he made no references to any other culture – and the emphasis on culture is itself problematic given the larger economic realities.
Jamelle Bouie had a compelling take on this.
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 the American attachment to cars and proclaim “culture” is to miss most of the story, and if you’re an advocate mass transit – for example – it is to 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.
That Ryan proceeded to reference Charles Murray of “Bell Curve” fame yesterday added an additional element to his comments that was, at a minimum, problematic.