Poverty – Race, Ryan, and Rhetoric

March 18, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Poor Paul Ryan – he said what he really thought. That’s not always dangerous, but this time it was about why Black men don’t work, and Rep. Ryan’s explanation was that there’s something wrong with the men, their families, and their culture.

You can’t blame Ryan for his statement. His guard was down. He was among friends, being interviewed by William Bennett, a whale of a conservative. Bennett set the ball on the tee:
We’re setting records in terms of people not working. . . . There’s a cultural aspect to this . . . Boys particularly learn how to work. Who teaches boys how to work. . . . A boy has to see a man working, doesn’t he?
And Ryan took a swing:
Absolutely. . . . 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, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.
When a reporter (lauren victoria burke of Crew of 42 - here) later asked Ryan about the racial implications in his statement, Ryan first tried the standard dodge” “it was taken out of context.” Then he went for total denial:
This has nothing to do whatsoever with race. It never even occurred to me. This has nothing to do with race whatsoever.
Rep. Ryan was using here a rhetorical device known as “a lie.”

The context for the Bennett interview was Ryan’s recent report on poverty programs, particularly those that encourage “dependency” rather than work.  Nor did Ryan embellish or add relevant ideas that were left out of the quote. So the statement was perfectly in context. As for race, the term “inner city” is so often to mean Black that it can’t even be considered a code word; it’s a synonym.

When burke (in a West-Wing-like walk-and-talk) pointed out the racial implications, Ryan suddenly remembered that poverty and unemployment were not purely inner city problems
This isn’t a race based comment. It’s a breakdown of families, it’s rural poverty in rural areas, and talking about where poverty exists — there are no jobs and we have a breakdown of the family.
Ryan’s second thoughts are accurate.  In fact, rates of poverty are higher in rural areas than in metro areas.  The difference is slight in most regions, probably because metro areas have so many people who are not poor. But in the South, the rural-urban difference is unmistakable.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

As several others have pointed out, it was only when Ryan’s image of poverty expanded to include rural Whites that his explanation expanded to include what should be obvious – the lack of jobs.  We can't really know the implicit associations in Rep. Ryan’s mind.  But it certainly looks as though they go like this:  Why are inner-city Black people poor? Because of their culture – they haven’t learned the value of work. Why are Whites in Appalachia poor? Because there are no jobs.

HT: Eric Volsky at ThinkProgress for the graph.

(An earlier version of this post had Ryan as a Senator. He is in fact a Representative. What could I have been thinking.?)

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