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Blaming poverty on the mysterious influence of “culture” is a convenient excuse for doing nothing to address the problem.
That’s the real issue with what Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said about distressed inner-city communities. Critics who accuse him of racism are missing the point. What he’s really guilty of is providing a reason for government to throw up its hands in mock helplessness.
The fundamental problem that poor people have, whether they live in decaying urban neighborhoods or depressed Appalachian valleys or small towns of the Deep South, is not enough money.
Alleviating stubborn poverty is difficult and expensive. Direct government aid—money, food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance and the like—is not enough. Poor people need employment that offers a brighter future for themselves and their children. Which means they need job skills. Which means they need education. Which means they need good schools and safe streets.
The list of needs is dauntingly long, and it’s hard to know where to start—or where the money for all the needed interventions will come from. It’s much easier to say that culture is ultimately to blame. But since there’s no step-by-step procedure for changing a culture, we end up not doing anything.
This is what Ryan said in a radio interview: “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.”
What exactly does he mean by culture? In the context of “our inner cities,” Ryan can’t be talking about rap music and baggy pants. If so, he ought to visit any high school in any affluent suburb, where he will find kids listening to the same music and wearing the same clothes—kids who will grow up to be doctors and lawyers.
Is he talking about the breakdown of family structure? To me, that’s looking suspiciously more like effect than cause. As President Obama has noted, the rise in out-of-wedlock births and single-parent households seen years ago among African-Americans is now being seen among whites, especially in communities hit hard by economic dislocation.
Ryan surely can’t be talking about the use of illegal drugs, since most surveys indicate that young blacks and Hispanics are no more likely to be drug users than are young whites.
Ryan refers specifically to “the value and the culture of work,” and he may be onto something—almost. His description of “just generations of men not even thinking about working” is ridiculous. That would be like demanding to know what cultural shortcoming keeps me from spending time thinking about sailing my mega yacht to my private island.
In depressed urban and rural communities, there is an acute shortage of meaningful work. There was a time when young men who didn’t plan to go to college could anticipate finding blue-collar work at “the plant” nearby—maybe a steel mill, maybe an assembly line. There they could have job security, enough income to keep a roof over a family’s head, a pension when they retired. Their children, who would go to college, could expect lives of greater accomplishment and affluence.
This was how the “culture of work” functioned. How is it supposed to happen without work?
Confronting the devastation suffered by what used to be working-class communities is hard; adjusting to post-globalization economic realities is harder. Say the word culture and you sound erudite and concerned, especially if you drop the name of the Harvard scholar Samuel Huntington, who described world affairs as a clash of civilizations with different cultural values.
My problem is that when you identify something so amorphous as culture as the fundamental issue, you excuse yourself for not proposing concrete solutions.
As you might have gathered, I’m suspicious of the cultural hypothesis as a way to explain who succeeds and who doesn’t. I believe outcomes mostly depend on opportunities, and that people are much less likely to engage in self-destructive behavior if they see opportunities that make sense to them.
If we had universal pre-kindergarten that fed all children into high-quality schools, if we had affordable higher education, if we incentivized industry to invest in troubled communities—if people had options for which they were prepared—culture would take care of itself.
But all of that is expensive. Hot air, as Paul Ryan knows, is cheap.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.