If you were listening to the musings of Rep. (and former GOP vice presidential candidate) Paul Ryan last week, it would be understandable if you had a terrible case of whiplash. In the span of 48 hours, he went from basically saying that poverty occurred because inner city men didn’t want to work, to saying he was inarticulate about his words, to backtracking more, but not apologizing. What is that great Maya Angelou quote? The first time someone shows you who they are, believe them? Yeah, I’m going to go with that, thanks. Let’s unpack his statements and what’s behind them, shall we?
Since the beginning of the year, Paul Ryan has been talking about poverty, taking every moment to criticize past and current policies while professing to care about the plight of the poor. Last Wednesday, Ryan went on a right wing radio and said, among other things, “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, so there is real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”
I’m sorry, WHAT? When I read that I went on a mini-rant on Twitter. Basically, Ryan was saying that poverty exists because Black men are lazy and don’t want to work. Note what he didn’t say…he didn’t say poor people, he didn’t say poor people living in rural areas. He was very specific. That kind of coded language is so obvious it can’t even really be called code. Of course, the backlash came fast and furious and Ryan defended his comments, saying they had nothing to do about race. Sure, and I have a bridge in Fort Lee to sell you.
Conservatives have been shaming and painting poor people, especially poor Black people, as lazy for as long as I can remember. Remember Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” bit? That wasn’t just some throwaway line. It was a deliberate phrase to invoke a particular reaction; one that pits us vs. them and blames the state of being poor solely on the poor themselves.
Realizing that he was still in deep mess, Ryan further backpedalled, saying in a statement to ThinkProgress “…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.” Ok, but I’m going to back to that Maya Angelou quote, because I really do think that Rep. Ryan believes that some, maybe most, poor folks have this culture of not working or wanting to work. And if he believes that, he should watch the new HBO Documentary Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert (done in conjunction with the Shriver Report) that follows the life of one of these poor people he speaks of. A single mom of three, Katrina works hard every day but can’t make ends meet. And I dare anyone to watch that movie and say that people like her are poor because they don’t work hard enough.
I really hope Rep. Ryan watches Paycheck to Paycheck this week. He is right that we as a society have largely turned our backs on the poor, but even that is too simplistic an explanation of why we have so many people struggling in this country today. I hope he realizes that many of the policies he supports have had a big hand in that as well. And (if you take him at his word that he wasn’t singling out Black men, and I DON’T) I hope he looks at Katrina and rethinks his notion that poor people need a change in their culture or work ethic. It makes you wonder: who are the poor people he’s talking to? If he’s talking to any at all.
Daniella Gibbs Léger, a former special assistant to President Obama, is the Senior Vice President for American Values and New Communities at the Center for American Progress. Follow her on Twitter @dgibber123