It’s surprising that Congressman Paul Ryan has been so roundly condemned for blaming a culture of laziness for inner-city poverty. On March 12, Congressman Ryan said on Bill Bennett’s radio program that “Charles Murray or Bob Putnam over at Harvard, those guys have written books on…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’s a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”
Congresswoman Barbara Lee described Ryan’s comments as a “thinly veiled racial attack.” Progressive commentators used Ryan’s remarks as an opportunity to bludgeon “culture of poverty” conversations that obscure urban isolation, government disinvestment and racial discrimination. The backlash was so effective that Ryan was forced to agree to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus and to offer a tortured explanation of his comments as “inarticulate.”
I am no fan of Congressman Ryan. I have called him to task repeatedly for his draconian poverty policy proposals, but in this case I feel bad for the guy. He must be wondering what all the fuss is about. After all, his comments have been the mainstream view of the Democratic Party for decades.
It was future Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan whose 1965 report argued that a tangle of pathology, typified by female-headed households, was responsible for reproducing poverty among urban African-Americans. Like Paul Ryan, Moynihan leaned on academics such as anthropologist Oscar Lewis, who argued that poverty produced value systems that prevented those born into poverty from working their way out. Then, in the 1990s, Democratic President Bill Clinton declared “the end of welfare as we know it.” He cited the influence of William Julius Wilson (who ultimately opposed Clinton’s reforms), the pioneering black sociologist whose acclaimed 1996 text, When Work Disappears, argued that while policy-makers and private industry initially caused economic decline in urban areas, this disinvestment led to cultural patterns that devalued labor in poor black communities.
Smart academics, many of whom are African-American and endowed with the legitimacy of elite American universities, continue to debate the role of culture in poverty and policy. As recently as May 2010, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science published a special edition called “Reconsidering Culture and Poverty.” These academic findings about how historical racism, modern institutions and collective cultural practices contribute to poverty are often argued with nuance, but policy-makers use sound-bite versions of research “over at Harvard” to bolster contrived explanations of social phenomena. For the most part, social scientists have proved unable or unwilling to intervene when lawmakers misuse research findings that they barely comprehend.
It was in the gap between robust academic reflection and trite political polemic where I most hoped President Obama would intervene. Although passing good legislation is nearly impossible in the face of Tea Party opposition, the president retains the power to lead public conversations.
But our current Democratic president has not offered a new narrative. His script seems borrowed. Just in February the White House launched a new initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper,” which targets young men of color. “No excuses,” announced President Obama. “Government, and the private sector, and philanthropy, and all the faith communities, we all have a responsibility to help provide you the tools you need…. But you’ve got responsibilities too.”
Ryan must feel aggrieved that his words drew so much fire when they could have been lifted from a presidential press release. He argued on Bennett’s program that “you can’t just say: I’m paying my taxes, government’s gonna fix that…. You need to get involved yourself—whether through a good mentor program or some religious charity, whatever it is—to make a difference. And that’s how we help resuscitate our culture.”
“My Brother’s Keeper” was announced just days after a Florida jury was unable to convict Michael Dunn of first-degree murder for shooting into a car of unarmed black teens after a dispute about hip-hop music. Jordan Davis was shot to death because of Dunn’s assumptions about the meaning of his cultural expression. And “My Brother’s Keeper” launches under the long shadow cast by the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin in a trial that put the teen culture of the dead boy—from his clothing to his Twitter account—on trial in both the courtroom and the media. The White House responded by launching an initiative to intervene with young black boys.
The shootings of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, and the Florida juries’ response, might suggest that the culture in need of intervention is that of white men who carry firearms. But social science has spent little time debating the tangle of pathology that ensnares the privileged. We are trained to intervene with those who lack resources, to find the problems there, and to ignore the perpetrators of the inequality. Even our thoughtful, well-meaning, African-American, Democratic president reacts according to these assumptions.
It is perfectly reasonable to point out that Congressman Ryan is wrong. Private charity is insufficient to counter structural inequalities, and poverty is evidence of a deficit of resources, not a deficit of character. It is also reasonable to point out to President Obama that the achievement gap didn’t kill Jordan Davis, and that Trayvon Martin’s loving, present father was no bulletproof vest.