Washington’s approach to the war on poverty endured a dramatic episode this week when Representative Paul Ryan made inflammatory remarks about the “culture” of America’s inner cities. The 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee and House Budget Committee chairman told a conservative radio program that “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.”
Representative Barbara Lee hit back quickly in a widely noted statement: “My colleague Congressman Ryan’s comments about ‘inner-city’ poverty are a thinly veiled racial attack and cannot be tolerated,” Lee said. “Let’s be clear, when Mr. Ryan says ‘inner city,’ when he says, ‘culture,’ these are simply code words for what he really means: ‘black.’”
On Thursday, Lee revealed to a small group of reporters that she has spoken with Ryan about his remarks—and that the two plan to meet to discuss them soon. “I’ve talked to him. We’re going to get together about it. It was a good conversation,” Lee told the reporters, in the office of House minority whip Steny Hoyer. The two convened the briefing to push their anti-poverty message and their effort to get long-term unemployment insurance and a minimum wage increase passed through the House.
Lee said she hopes the controversy can spark a broader conversation about poverty in Congress. “At least the debate is beginning,” she said, noting that Ryan recently conducted a “poverty tour” through several states. “It’s a good debate, that should have happened twenty-five years ago.”
Hoyer agreed that Ryan’s remarks might end up serving a purpose. “Frankly, I think Ryan raising it is a positive. Because it puts it out there as an area of concern,” Hoyer said.
Conciliatory as the two might have sounded, they repeatedly and at length took issue with Ryan’s framing.
“I think part of the issue with a lot of members is, they just don’t get it,” said Lee. “They don’t understand when they make comments such as this that—race is a factor in America, regardless of what you think. And I think Paul Ryan does not quite understand that.”
Hoyer echoed those comments, and said that Ryan’s racial framing served to turn people off from really addressing the issue of poverty. “The majority of poverty is not in inner cities, and the majority of poverty is not minorities,” he said. “Some people don’t understand that, [and] they simplify. And as a result, it undermines the concern of some people because they think it’s not them.”
House Democrats are pushing discharge petitions on the minimum wage and extending long-term unemployment benefits. (The meeting occurred just before the Senate reportedly reached a deal to pass an unemployment benefit extension out of that chamber.)
The discharge petitions allow for a vote on each respective measure once there are 218 signees—the operating theory is that there may be enough votes to pass both bills, but House Speaker John Boehner won’t allow the votes to occur.
The prospect of either petition reaching 218 is slim, but Democrats feel it allows them to put Republican members who claim they’d support either of the measures on the spot, so they can no longer say they support say, a minimum wage increase, but just haven’t had the chance to vote on it.
The petitions are no doubt a last-ditch effort, but House Democrats are feeling desperate. Hoyer openly admitted that the body in which he serves has made poverty matters worse in the past three years. “There’s no doubt we’ve exacerbated it. By our negligence or by our refusal to act, we’ve made poverty worse,” he said. “We’ve made the status of families in America worse, and we’ve hurt our economy.”