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.