“There was a time when I would talk about a difference between ‘makers’ and ‘takers’ in our country, referring to people who accepted government benefits,” he said. “But as I spent more time listening, and really learning the root causes of poverty, I realized I was wrong. ‘Takers’ wasn’t how to refer to a single mom stuck in a poverty trap, just trying to take care of her family. Most people don’t want to be dependent.”
Ryan later went further, saying of his past characterization of low-income Americans: “I was callous and I oversimplified and castigated people with a broad brush. There is a lot of that happening in America today.”
For several years — as he has pushed policies to slash Medicaid funding, food stamps, unemployment insurance, and other social programs — Ryan has repeatedly referred to poverty as a “culture problem” among people in “inner cities,” where “generations of men [are] not even thinking about working.”
His most recent poverty plan takes a punitive stance, punishing people who can’t find a job by a certain mandated deadline by reducing their benefits. While Ryan did express a willingness in Wednesday’s speech to evolve on policies like criminal justice, he offered no changes to this economic model other than more respectful rhetoric regarding the poor.
When speaking about the 2016 presidential election, Ryan similarly focused on tone over content lamenting the state of political discourse “from both sides,” but declining to call out any candidate or any policy directly.
“Our political discourse, it did not used to be this bad, and it does not have to be this way,” he said. “We don’t have to accept this, and we can’t enable it either…We should demand better from ourselves. We should demand better from one another.”
While offering a mild denunciation of the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-woman, and pro-white supremacist rhetoric in the 2016 race, Ryan failed to acknowledge that the Republican Party has for years pushed bills in Congress that advance similar views and helped create a space for the current election tenor.
Republicans in the House, for instance, introduced legislation suggesting that President Obama wasn’t born in America. Prominent Republicans warned that the Muslim Brotherhood was infiltrating the Obama Administration.
“The Republican establishment has allowed a decades old anti-Latino movement to fester within its ranks,” noted Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid in a speech in Washington last week. “Republican leaders looked on approvingly while extremists like Congressman Steve King used repugnant language against Latinos, such as likening DREAMers to drug mules. Republican leaders said nothing as Mitt Romney urged a policy of self-deportation, as Jeb Bush spoke of “anchor babies” and as Marco Rubio called for deporting all DREAMers.”
Though he did not mention Trump once by name, Ryan did seem to refer to him Wednesday when he urged his party to adopt a more optimistic and forward-looking tone with voters. “Instead of playing to your anxieties, we can appeal to your aspirations,” he said. “We don’t just resort to scaring you. We dare to inspire you.”