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Paul Ryan: Is it racist to blame poverty on culture?

Paul Ryan sparked outrage when he attributed the cause of poverty in the nations's inner cities to a culture of "men not working.”

Rep. Paul Ryan may not be “personally a racist,” said Paul Krugman in The New York Times, but in today’s Republican Party, you don’t get far without knowing how to talk like one. The GOP’s boyish budget wonk and possible presidential contender sparked outrage last week when, in conversation with right-wing radio host Bill Bennett, he blamed U.S. poverty on a “culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working.” If there were any doubt that Ryan’s comments were a “racial dog whistle,” note that he spoke as if poverty exists only in the “inner cities.” In the Republican mind-set, when liberals steal your hard-earned money to give it away in handouts to “Those People,” the “inner city” is where those (black) people live. Ryan later walked back his remarks, said Paul Waldman in Prospect.org, claiming he’d been “inarticulate.” Perhaps in a more articulate moment he might explain why 41 percent of the 50 million Americans living in poverty are white, and why states with the highest poverty rates are Southern states dominated by conservative social values and economic policies.

“One of the worst traits” of many liberals is their promiscuous use of the term “racist!” said Andrew Sullivan in Dish.AndrewSullivan.com.Calling Ryan a racist is a cowardly way “to avoid engaging [his] arguments rather than tackling them.” In any serious discussion of poverty, how do you pretend culture doesn’t play a role? Even some liberals used to concede that, said Jonathan Tobin in CommentaryMagazine.com. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton embraced welfare reform, admitting that some social programs aimed at lifting people out of poverty were having the opposite effect: making the poor so dependent on government handouts that they lost the incentive to work. But in the “newly energized left wing of the Democratic Party,” it’s still the 1960s, and “throwing more money” at poverty is the only solution.

Let’s take race out of this discussion for a moment, said Ana Marie Cox in TheGuardian.com. Ryan, who has anointed himself the GOP’s leading authority on poverty, is pushing the heartless notion that “the main reason people are poor is because they choose not to work.” It never occurs to him that most poor people—black and white—want decent-paying jobs that will lift them out of poverty, but can’t find them, because they’re gone. Conservatives can’t acknowledge that harsh reality, said Matt Bruenig in Prospect.org. Only by telling themselves that the poor are unsalvageably stupid and lazy can Republicans slash food stamps, unemployment benefits, and Medicaid and lower taxes for the rich with a clear conscience. Ryan’s real goal is not to end poverty, but to “justify its existence.”

If we are to have any useful discussion about poverty, said Michael Winters in NCROnline.org, we can’t silence our political adversaries or assume they have ill intentions. It’s intellectually dishonest for liberals to pretend that culture—particularly the epidemic of single motherhood—plays no role in poverty. It’s just as dishonest for conservatives to insist that government can play no useful role in helping the poor succeed. To tackle a problem as grave and intractable as poverty, we need people like Ryan—the House Budget Committee chairman—to be part of the conversation, and not dismiss him as a racist every time he opens his mouth. To have any hope of progress, we need “all hands on deck.”

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