Last week Paul Ryan provoked an outcry when he claimed that poverty in America was in large part a product of a "tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working, just generations of men not even thinking of working, or learning the value and the culture of work." Ever since the heyday of Ronald Reagan, the phrase "inner city" has been criticized as a GOP dog whistle for "black people," so Ryan has rightly faced a backlash for his comments. (While claiming they were "inarticulate," he insists his comments had "nothing to do with race whatsoever.")
But another aspect of this much-remarked-on incident has drawn no notice: his focus on inner city men. Ryan's comments seem to be based on an unstated assumption that what he calls the "culture of work" is especially relevant to men.
That assumption in turn is a product of an increasingly anachronistic and indeed reactionary world view, in which working for money is the epitome of what it means to be a man. More precisely, to be a man, on this view, is to work a "real job" — that is, a job that at least pays enough to allow him to be the provider, the breadwinner, for his family.
Ryan's inner city men, who have never "learned the value and the culture of work," are therefore not merely failing, but failing specifically as men, by failing to provide for their families.
The problem with this neat little morality tale is captured by what ought to be some startling statistics. Note that another unstated assumption behind comments such as Ryan's is that the American economy actually produces enough decent-paying jobs to allow a reasonable number of Americans to have such jobs, as long as they embrace "the culture of work."
To say this isn't the case is an understatement. What is a "good" job, financially speaking? One which pays $50,000 per year? $40,000? $30,000? The latter figure, which represents take-home pay of less than $2000 per month, and which is only twice the minimum wage (which itself has declined sharply in real terms since the 1960s), is an extremely generous definition of what constitutes a decent-paying job.
But let's use it anyway, to determine how many Americans of working age have such jobs. If we make a couple more unrealistically optimistic assumptions — that nobody under 18 or over 69 is working, and that no one has more than one job — the answer is: three out of 10.
Nearly 70 percent of American working-age adults do not have jobs that pay at least $30,000 per year, because there are only three such jobs for every 10 American adults between the ages of 18 and 69. In other words, the vast majority of working age Americans cannot possibly acquire decent-paying jobs, even if one defines a decent-paying job extremely broadly, because there aren't nearly enough such jobs, not because people fail to embrace "the culture of work."
Here's another statistic that those who embrace the culture of math will find relevant to Ryan's claims that inner city men in particular are poor because they have a bad attitude toward gainful employment: the labor force participation rate. This is the percentage of non-institutionalized adults who are either employed or actively seeking work.
The year Paul Ryan's father reached working age (1948), 86 percent of American men, but only 32 percent of American women, were participating in the labor force. (A large portion of women who worked outside the home were poor, usually non-white, domestic workers. It was fairly unusual for a white middle class woman over 30 to work for income).
Since then, the labor force participation rate among men has declined by 18 percent, while the rate among women has nearly doubled. Another consequence of this social shift is that most men make less money than they did 40 years ago, even though the country as a whole is vastly wealthier: for 60 percent of men, real wages are actually lower now than they were in 1973.
Republicans love to talk about the wisdom of the free market in general and the irresistible laws of supply and demand in particular, but Ryan (who is currently touted as his party's economic whiz kid) seems to be failing Econ 101. Poverty in America has nothing to do with the shiftless "inner city" men haunting Paul Ryan's all-too vivid imagination, and everything to do with the fact that seven out of 10 American adults of working age can't get a decent-paying job, because those jobs don't exist.
In a culture in which it's now assumed that every non-elderly adult who isn't a full-time student or the primary caretaker of small children should be working for wages, this fact has especially devastating consequences for precisely those men whose plight Ryan addressed in such an "inarticulate" way.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 10 things you need to know today: September 30, 2014
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- The troubling persistence of eugenicist thought in modern America
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- How liberals are unwittingly paving the way for the legalization of adult incest
- Libertarianism's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea
- How the Simpsons/Family Guy crossover revealed the worst of both shows
- What the Romney boomlet says about the establishment GOP's feeble 2016 field
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- Why the Chinese military is only a paper dragon
Subscribe to the Week