Rep. Paul Ryan’s claim that young “inner city” men are “not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work” because they rely on government assistance has sparked outrage from a growing number of Democratic lawmakers, one of whom called the comments “a thinly veiled racial attack.”
Ryan defended himself on Wednesday night, telling the blog Crew of 42, “This has nothing to do whatsoever with race. It never even occurred to me. This has nothing to do with race whatsoever.”
But whether or not race was at the heart of Ryan’s intentions, it appears that the government data and the social research he uses to argue that “inner city” men are taking advantage of anti-poverty programs to avoid employment actually only undermine his claims.
When discussing “this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working” on Bill Bennett’s Morning in America on Wednesday, the Congressman specifically mentioned two social scientists to substantiate his views: Charles Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who openly believes that African-American men are less intelligent than whites due to genetic differences, and Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor whose research has found that lower-income Americans are more distrustful of others and more disconnected from society’s important institutions than their middle or higher-income counterparts. Putnam argues that these trends are a sign that the United States is “heading towards a caste system where social standing and community involvement are inherited from generation to generation” and undermine social mobility.
When asked to substantiate the Congressman’s claim that inner city men aren’t thinking about employment, a Ryan spokesperson pointed ThinkProgress to Putnam’s paper “Growing Class Gaps in Social Connectedness among American Youth.” While the analysis in that paper finds evidence that lower-income groups are less socially and civically engaged, part of what Ryan’s remarks implied, it doesn’t examine whether poor people are unwilling to work.
In fact, Putnam himself explained in an earlier examination that civic investment and welfare spending “appear essentially uncorrelated.” “Citizens in free-spending states are no less trusting or engaged than citizens in frugal ones,” he wrote, before directly undermining Ryan’s thesis: “Among nineteen member countries of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for which data on social trust and group membership are available from the 1990–1991 World Values Survey, these indicators of social capital are, if anything, positively correlated with the size of the state,” Putnam concluded. That means higher spending on welfare programs can actually help lower-income people become more engaged.
In defending his “inner city” remarks on Wednesday night, Ryan changed his focus to “rural” poverty, saying, “This isn’t a race based comment it’s a breakdown of families, it’s rural poverty in rural areas, and talking about where poverty exists — there are no jobs and we have a breakdown of the family. Government data has corroborated that rural areas, not inner cities, are increasingly key to the problem of poverty.
According to the Department of Agriculture, poverty is actually more heavily concentrated in rural, rather than urban areas. “More than 35 percent of the people living in completely rural counties live in high-poverty counties and more than 26 percent live in persistent-poverty counties. In contrast, about 6 percent of the people living in the most urban nonmetro areas live in high-poverty counties and 4 percent live in persistent-poverty counties,” it finds:
Ryan’s comments come a week after he released a 204-page report analyzing the effectiveness of the nation’s anti-poverty programs, 50 years after President Lyndon Johnson declared a national War on Poverty. Following its publication, several prominent economists publicly complained that Ryan misrepresented, misunderstood, or selectively quoted their research.
The former GOP vice presidential candidate, who argues that federal anti-poverty programs have contributed to the nation’s high poverty rate and “created what’s known as the poverty trap,” is expected to offer reforms to the nation’s programs in his upcoming FY 2015 budget.