Why Paul Ryan Is Wrong to Blame Black Culture for Poverty

Watching Paul Ryan try to figure out the poverty question has been a fascinating spectacle. It began with his secret poverty tour, a tour so secretive that it was covered in the major national newspapers. The next event was the release of his big report on the condition of the welfare state, a report so riddled with inaccuracies that even the economists he cites favorably claim he has misrepresented their work. And now today, we are treated to a sneak peak at what all of this political theater has led him to conclude about the causes of poverty: black culture is making people lazy.

Of course, he doesn't use "black," opting instead for its friendlier synonym "inner city":

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.

As an initial matter, it is still kind of amazing that policymakers in America shuffle around looking for the answer to the poverty question. We discuss poverty reduction strategies as if we are navigating uncharted territory even though we already know from other countries how it's done: transfer money to those at the bottom.

Beyond that, the racial degeneracy explanations of poverty in the U.S. are amazing in their own right. The rhetorical strategy is obviously intended to associate poverty with the black other and their inferiority as a means to make poverty reduction less politically attractive. We've been here before (see welfare queens). In fact, we have scarcely been anywhere else in the last half-century.

This racist explanation of American poverty, as popular as it is, has some fatal flaws however. In 2012, there were 18.9 million whites with incomes below the official poverty line, compared to 10.9 million blacks. Because blacks make up a small fraction of the population, their postulated "inner city" culture cannot account for anywhere near most of the poverty in America. It just can't.

Blacks do have higher poverty rates than whites, which is important to note. But it is necessary to put that into historical perspective if we are going to have the conversation Paul Ryan wants to have about causes:

Was it inferior black culture that had blacks at 55 percent poverty in 1959? What about their elevated rates in 1964, the year the Civil Rights Act passed? Surely even the right-wing agrees these days that elevated rates of black poverty were a function of American apartheid at some point. But when did the racism end? Did one day the racism end and then all of a sudden inferior black culture was born and held those poverty rates back from plummeting? Black poverty, like America more generally, has yet to recover from American apartheid. It being elevated is not some new phenomenon.

In fact, if you index black and white poverty at 100 in 1959, when the Census trend line starts, you actually see black poverty rates are down relative to white poverty rates during the period in which the black cultural inferiority hypothesis Paul Ryan is gravitating towards becomes popular:

As of 2012, black poverty is down 50 percent from its 1959 starting point while white poverty is down just 30 percent. The swing in percentage points is even more dramatic, with black poverty down 27.9 points and white poverty down just 5.4 points. The historical trend data don't support Paul Ryan's racist theory of poverty, but they do support a racism theory of it.

Ultimately, like I said at the top, all of these inquiries into the causes of poverty and its solutions are unserious. Paul Ryan was never going to reach a conclusion other than one that claimed poverty is a function of its victims being screwed up. Ryan and those like him are not looking to solve poverty, but to justify its existence.

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