No sooner did Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) issue a statement yesterday backing away from his "inarticulate" remarks about lazy inner-city men than Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus chimed in this morning, supporting Ryan for courageously tackling the issue of the lazy, undeserving poor.
In a controversial radio interview Ryan talked about the "problem . . . that has to be dealt with" of generations of men growing up in the inner city "not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work."
"He made a couple of of comments that were inarticulate," Priebus said, but the fact is he made those comments because he's devoted his life to this issue which I think is commendable."
Ryan's comments, widely percieved as racist, did not hurt the Republican Party, Priebus said. And Priebus went further, defending Ryan as a model for other rich, white, Republican men who may have felt too shy to weigh in on the moral failings of poor people and the hazards of providing them with benefits like unemployment insurance and food stamps.
"I think it really just illustrates the fact that we have party leaders that are venturing into areas that we should venture into which is the war on poverty," Priebus said.
Ryan has been venturing into those areas for some time, as Roger Bybee points out in his excellent piece on Ryan as Janesville's Marie Antoinette
Whether he is voting for job-killing free trade deals that devastate his home town, or opposing the extension of unemployment benefits, school lunches, and food stamps that serve as a lifeline for his hard-hit constituents, Ryan has made his reputation as the brains behind the Republicans' most divisive, live-and-let-die economic policy proposals.
This month, as House Budget Committee Chairman, Ryan released a report on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty that suggests that federal anti-poverty programs are an expensive, complicated mess.
As economist Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out
Ryan and the other Republicans on the House Budget Committee stack the deck in their report, which is "beset with misleading evidence and conclusions."
The biggest lie in Ryan's poverty report is that federal antipoverty programs actually create poverty.
This is an old line of argument, and fits in with Ryan's invocation, in that same controversial radio interview, of Charles Murray, the Bell Curve author who delighted conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s by lending intellectual heft to their political arguments that the poor are lazy, that there may be a genetic explanation for racial inequality, and that heaping shame and punishment on single mothers, including by cutting off their food stamps, might help alleviate poverty by discouraging out-of-wedlock births.
The notion that poverty is an attitude problem, and that inequality is perhaps linked to innate, genetic factors, is suddenly popular again, as the staggeringly rich suck up more of our nation's wealth than ever before.
Ryan and other Ayn Rand acolytes in the Republican Party are pressing home their efforts to repeal not just the Great Society and its anti-poverty programs, not just the New Deal safety net, but the Progressive Era itself and the foundational notion that the public must be protected from rapacious corporate greed.
The first step is to declare the War on Poverty a failure.
But the declaration of defeat doesn't fit the facts. War on Poverty programs continue to keep a lot of Americans from falling into the abyss.
Robert Greenstein, founder and president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and former head of the USDA's SNAP food assistance program, testified before the House Budget Committee that during the recent recession, despite the awful jobs numbers, poverty had not actually gotten much worse.
"Given the depth and severity of the economic downturn (sometimes called the Great Recession), one would have expected poverty to have soared. It didn't," Greenstein testified. "The Census Bureau's broad poverty measures show relatively modest increases in poverty, which stands in sharp contrast to the deep plunge in the economy and the doubling of the unemployment rate."
That good news is attributable entirely to the programs that protect the poorest Americans from falling through the cracks--mainly the earned income and child tax credits and food assistance.
"Programs like SNAP and unemployment insurance, supplemented by the temporary increases in assistance in various safety net programs that were provided under the Recovery Act, counteracted most of the increase in poverty that would otherwise have occurred," Greenstein testified. "This is a substantial accomplishment and one that speaks well for our nation."
Greenstein went on to dismantle the political arguments that these programs are wasteful, that they cause dependency, and that they somehow make poverty worse.
But apparently, Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and the Republican majority were not listening.
Safety net programs passed as part of the War on Poverty cut the poverty rate in the United States in half compared to what it would have been had these programs not been in effect, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
But Ryan and his Republican colleagues argue in their report that these antipoverty programs create a poverty "trap" that leads to higher, not lower poverty rates. They argue that the United States has spent too much on antipoverty programs and has not seen much improvement. And they argue that single motherhood, not low wages, is a major reason people are poor. (An argument that might be related to Ryan's suggestion that cutting off school lunch programs will help poor children by making their mothers pack them lunches and therefore increasing their sense of being loved.)
Lately, Paul Ryan has been positioning himself as a statesman and a deal-maker, hammering out the bipartisan budget deal with Senator Patty Murray (Democrat of Washington) and visiting New Hampshire along with other prospective 2016 Presidential candidates. His 50th anniversary report on the War on Poverty does not have the slash-and-burn policy prescriptions of his recent budgets.
"It's all windup, no delivery," Jared Bernstein observes in his blog. "Rep. Ryan never suggests what he want to do differently in terms of antipoverty policy. Is this a mystery serial where we have to wait for the next installment (i.e. the House budget)?"
If so, Ryan's recent comments, his invocation of Charles Murray, and Reince Priebus's endorsement are not good signs.
We've seen this storyline before.
For most of America, it does not end well.
Photo: Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com