Paul Ryan stumbles in poverty debate
Rep. Paul Ryan got the national discussion about poverty that he asked for, but it isn't going the way he wanted.
The Janesville Republican's comments in recent days have resulted in accusations of racism and claims that he is unable to understand the lives of poor people.
The explosion in the press and blogosphere was to be expected, especially in an election year, but Ryan had to walk back his comments twice in the past two weeks.
Ryan has taken time over the past year to visit programs that work to improve lives in inner cities, and he recently released a report that he believes shows federal poverty programs are not doing what they were intended to do.
Critics have disagreed, but the sharpest controversies sprang from Ryan's attempts to make his points.
“The left is making a big mistake,” Ryan told the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 6. “What they're offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul.
Ryan was talking about the dignity of work and was castigating the Affordable Care Act, which he believes will mean fewer jobs.
“I think the problem is not enough people can find work,” he told the CPAC crowd.
Ryan related those ideas to a story he heard from Wisconsin Secretary of the Department of Children and Families Eloise Anderson that was not quite true.
Ryan told of Anderson speaking to a poor boy who didn't like getting free lunch at school. “He wanted his own lunch, one in a brown paper bag just like the other kids. He wanted one, he said, because he knew a kid with a brown paper bag had someone who cared for him,” Ryan said.
“That's what the Left just doesn't understand,” Ryan continued. “We don't want people to leave the workforce. We want them to share their skills and talents with the rest of us. And people don't just want a life of comfort; they want a life of dignity—of self-determination.”
After a journalist uncovered the source of the brown-bag story, Anderson said she had not spoken to the boy. She heard an author recount the story from a book during a TV interview.
Ryan had to backpedal: “(Anderson) mentioned it in her testimony for a House Budget Committee hearing last year. I have just learned that Secretary Anderson misspoke, and that the story she told was improperly sourced. I regret failing to verify the original source of the story, but I appreciate her taking the time to share her insights.”
Then, in speaking on former Education Secretary William Bennett's radio show Wednesday, Ryan offered this: “… 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's a real culture problem that has to be dealt with.”
Ryan also mentioned in passing the work of Charles Murray, the author of “The Bell Curve.” Murray has argued that blacks are genetically inferior.
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who serves on Ryan's House Budget Committee, fired off a statement:
“My colleague Congressman Ryan's comments about 'inner city' poverty are a thinly veiled racial attack and cannot be tolerated. 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.' …
“Instead of demonizing 'culture,' and blaming black men for their poverty, Mr. Ryan should step up and produce some legitimate proposals on how to tackle poverty and racial discrimination in America,” Lee continued. “His uninformed policy proposals continue to increase poverty, not solve it. My colleague is demonstrating a complete lack of knowledge and understanding of the issues in urban and black communities.”
Ryan acknowledged the next day that he had been "inarticulate," but he said he was not talking about race: “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. The predictable result has been multi-generational poverty and little opportunity. I also believe the government's response has inadvertently created a poverty trap that builds barriers to work. A stable, good-paying job is the best bridge out of poverty.
“The broader point I was trying to make is that we cannot settle for this status quo and that government and families have to do more and rethink our approach to fighting poverty. I have witnessed amazing people fighting against great odds with impressive success in poor communities. We can learn so much from them, and that is where this conversation should begin.”
The two Democrats seeking to unseat Ryan in November also attacked. Rob Zerban of Kenosha issued a statement, saying: “He admits his racist attack on poor people's 'culture' was informed at least in part by the discredited research of Charles Murray, who peddles theories of racial inferiority. This follows closely on the heels of his attacks on poor parents who utilize free and reduced-price lunch programs to feed their children—my own mother did—and his ill-considered and poorly researched attacks on other programs that help poor kids, like Head Start.”
Asked for comment, Amar Kaleka of Oak Creek said in an email that Ryan “epitomizes the out-of-touch nature of his party. They grew up with silver spoons and can't fully comprehend the nature of poverty in America.”
When asked about the controversies, a Ryan aide referred to Ryan's original words and responses noted above. There was no response to Ryan referencing Charles Murray's work, other than to quote Ryan mentioning Murray to Bennett.
When asked about solutions to poverty, the aide referred to a transcript of a TV interview in which Ryan mentions standard Republican solutions: lower tax rates, policies to encourage a U.S. “energy boom,” school choice, less government regulation and reducing spending and debt to encourage business investment.
Ryan also has called for programs to train workers for manufacturing jobs and for people to stop ignoring poverty and to get involved on a personal level, such as becoming a mentor or working with a religious charity.