03.28.2014

Poverty and the “Tailspin of Culture”

Rep. Paul Ryan’s recent explanations for urban poverty don’t differ significantly from President Obama’s.

Rep. Paul Ryan has waded into the public debate over the growing inequality and poverty in American society with the recent release of a 250 page report titled “The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later.”

The report itself has received less attention than Ryan’s incendiary comments intended to draw attention to it. During a conversation with conservative radio host Bill Bennett, Ryan took a stab at explaining the persistence of urban poverty:

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.

Interestingly, Ryan’s report on the War on Poverty, which is largely a listing of several existing domestic programs (whether they are intended to be anti-poverty programs or not), never mentions this idea that urban poverty exists because “generations of men” don’t even think “about working or learning the value and culture of work.” The report also does not mention Charles Murray, who Ryan name-checks in the interview and has suggested that Blacks suffer more poverty because they are genetically inferior to whites.

In fact, the report says almost nothing about African Americans except to explain the findings of the 1965 Moynihan Report. The report did make the vague claim that federal programs that offer any assistance to people may, among other reasons, “discourage work.” But it also lists the “Great Recession” and “slow economic growth” as reasons why people are out of work. The authors say throughout the report that very few studies have been conducted to determine the effectiveness of several of the programs and are basically inconclusive on how to end poverty in the US.

It is difficult to generate much interest or attention in a 250-page report with no conclusion, so Ryan appears to have reached to revive old stereotypes about lazy “inner city” men. Ryan’s old school race-baiting was quickly denounced by liberal politicians like Barbara Lee who rightly said, “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.’”

But Ta-Nehisi Coates reminded the liberal establishment that Ryan’s words had not strayed too far from comments that President Barack Obama has made about poor and working-class African Americans throughout his political career.

In fact, Ryan’s comments about urban poverty seemed to have been perfectly timed to cash in on the publicity surrounding Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. Obama described the initiative as an effort to “to help more young men of color facing especially tough odds to stay on track and reach their full potential.”

Obama blamed the problems inner city young men face on the absence of fathers and a series of bad, individual choices. This fit with what Obama often has to say about poor and working class African Americans. From candidate Obama’s castigating comments about black parents feeding their children Popeye’s fried chicken for breakfast and accusing black men of “abandon[ing] their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men,” to his speech commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the 1963 civil rights March on Washington, where he claimed,

Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support, as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself. All of that history is how progress stalled. That’s how hope was diverted. It’s how our country remained divided.

Unlike Ryan, Obama has always coupled his condemnations of the black poor with quick nods to discrimination in the nation’s past, but the overwhelming emphasis is in sync with a broad and bipartisan agreement that a culture of poverty and lapsed personal responsibility are ultimately to blame for the disproportionate rates of African American poverty.

The reduction of the real issues confronting black and brown people in America’s inner cities to culture or an absence of “personal responsibility” is a well-worn trope in American politics. It is a logic that is deeply embedded in the more hopeful rhetoric of the American Dream and the false notion that hard work and “playing by the rules” can lead to success and financial fulfillment in our country.

For example, after winning the 2012 election, Obama stated, “It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.”

The other meaning of this, of course, is that if you haven’t made it, it is because you haven’t worked hard or that you were not willing to try. This mythology of social mobility in the US has resulted in policies that aim to combat poverty by emphasizing the nebulous and elusive trappings of “opportunity.” There are no guarantees in America, only the chance for work, housing, food, education, and health care.

The emphasis on opportunity, as opposed to guarantees, was cemented in the hysteria of the Cold War that viewed government anti-poverty programs as “communist.” As one Johnson adviser put it, “[A] politically acceptable program must avoid completely the use of the term ‘inequality’ or of the term ‘redistribution’ of income or wealth.” The legislation to wage the War on Poverty was actually called the Equal Opportunity Act. President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper initiative” will be organized by the “New Presidential Task Force to Expand Opportunity.”

The emphasis on “personal responsibility,” “culture,” and “opportunity” does more than just assign blame to individuals — it also deflects attention from a sharper focus on an American economic order that produces eight of the top ten richest people on earth while twenty-five million Americans struggle to feed themselves and their families on less than ten dollars an hour. The focus on the individual also works to deform a public debate about the latest iteration of “urban crisis” without referencing how racially discriminatory public policies and private practices have compounded economic inequality so that the brunt of evictions, foreclosures, unemployment and underemployment, crumbling public schools, a dysfunctional health care system and an immoral criminal justice system are borne on black and brown urban communities across the nation.

In neither Obama’s speech nor later statement publicizing the My Brother’s Keeper initiative are the words “racism” or “inequality” anywhere to be found. Instead, unfairly stacked “odds” are offered as an explanation for these disparities that distinguish black and brown life from their white peers.

The inability or unwillingness to name racial discrimination as a central source of inequality in the US prevents serious programmatic and policy oriented responses. Its denial becomes the basis upon which the systematic underfunding of the public sector is rationalized: if these are personal problems and character issues, then more public policy is not the answer — personal transformation is.

Martin Luther King spoke to this dilemma in 1967 when the black movement faced a crisis over its direction. In his efforts to explain the emergence of the Black Power consciousness, King wrote,

After 348 years, racial injustice is still the Negro’s burden and America’s shame. Yet for his own inner health and outer functioning, the Negro is called upon to be as resourceful, as productive, and as responsible as those who have not known such oppression and exploitation. This is the Negro’s dilemma. He who starts the behind in a race must forever remain behind or run faster than the man in front. What a dilemma! It is a call to do the impossible. It is enough to cause the Negro to give up in despair.

Of course, African Americans did not give up. They rebelled throughout the 1960s, fueled by the accelerant of dashed expectations and the bitterness of being promised the American Dream only to wake to what Malcolm X described as an “American nightmare.”

Today’s political realities stand in stark contrast to those years. The black movement is in disarray, with a black man at the reigns of the most powerful country in the world and a black political elite that can barely see beyond its goal to curry favor with his administration. A generation of young African Americans is being disciplined not to dream, let alone have their dreams deferred.

In the city of Chicago, for example, not only have public officials closed the largest number of schools in the history of the nation, but also last fall there were genuine questions over whether the school district could provide toilet paper for all the district’s students. Third world conditions coexist with gentrification, corporate profligacy and a political leadership in this country that is so out of touch it can barely conceal its absolute contempt for the poor and the ordinary.

Paul Ryan’s calloused comments echoed this reality, but Obama has been just as quick to blame those same “inner city men.” While the liberal establishment relished the opportunity to pound on Ryan, Obama continues to get a pass for making the same point. The overlap of Republican and Democratic explanations for the persistence of poverty fifty years after the War on Poverty was declared demonstrates how much the two parties have in common on this question — not where they diverge.

The “Negro’s dilemma” has been further compounded by the complicity of black political elites. Having largely bought into the logic of this economic order, many of them stand by silently while the President peddles the same narrative of self-help and respectability — when only the reintroduction of the ideas of structural inequality, institutional racism, and injustice can make sense of the reality millions of African Americans find themselves trapped in.