Paul Ryan and the Historical Myth of the Undeserving Poor

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Unicorn Land) has never let reality intrude on his impenetrable ideological "truths."

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Unicorn Land) has never let reality intrude on his impenetrable ideological “truths.”

If you’re poor in America, Wisconsin’s favorite Social Security-collecting, Ayn Rand worshipping Congresscritter thinks it’s your own fault. Why does Paul Ryan blame people for their own poverty, you may ask? After all, as I discussed in a previous post, being poor is absolutely terrible: it leaves you wracked with financial insecurity; it flattens your self-confidence, and it’s bad for your health. But despite the general awfulness of poverty, guys like Paul Ryan and his army of ideologically like-minded right-wing goons still think that the poor are poor because they deserve to be poor. And in the U.S., what you look like (hint: what box you check when asked if you’re “black” or “white”) matters a whole lot when it comes to discussing being poor.

Paul Ryan and other conservatives know this all too well; in recent decades, they’ve made plenty of electoral hay out of playing up the long historical connection between race and poverty in America. Recently, Ryan was a guest on the Morning in America radio show of conservative moral crusader – and full-time gambler – Bill Bennett, where he discussed the long-running War on Poverty. When the discussion moved to the inner city (an American phrase that’s code for “black people”), Ryan cited the bogus theories of right-wing social scientist Charles Murray – who believes that blacks are genetically less intelligent than whites – to claim that inner city poverty stems from a culture of laziness on the part of African-Americans.

You see, Ryan, Murray, and plenty of other Americans think that poor people are poor because they don’t want to work. They think that lazy people can’t get jobs, so instead they get on public welfare doles. And historically, blacks and other minorities have had the high rates of poverty in the U.S. Thus, in the minds of Ryan and his ilk, “the poor” is often used as a stand-in phrase for “black people,” or other minorities, who’re allegedly stuck in “poverty traps” because they don’t have enough initiative to work. End of story.

This is why conservatives are hostile to the idea of welfare and why they score political points among many white voters when they talk about shredding the safety net. As the mighty Paul Krugman notes in the New York Times: “American conservatism is still, after all these years, largely driven by claims that liberals are taking away your hard-earned money and giving it to Those People.” In American history, race is utterly inseparable from class. When you talk about one, you have to talk about the other. Conservatives know this. By invoking images of lazy black people to white voters for political gain, they’re tapping into a long-held national myth that casts America as the forever “Land of Opportunity,” where not making it economically is, to paraphrase popular philosopher Jimmy Buffett, your own damn fault.

Of course, things have never been that simple. As historian Gary Nash explains in the book Down and Out in Early America,”the great myth of early American history is that scarce labor in a land-rich environment eliminated poverty.” Nash writes that Americans don’t want to discuss poverty because the very concept “is offensive to the notion of a people of plenty, an insult to the bounteous natural resources of North America, a puzzlement to those who believe in the untrammeled equality of opportunity” and “an embarrassment to those who trumpet American classlessness and exceptionalism.”* But even in the eighteenth century – the century of revolution – there was poverty. Lots of it. The streets of early America were strewn not only with widows, orphans, the disabled, and the sick – groups traditionally prone to poverty – but also with thousands of able-bodied men and women. This trend only accelerated with the rise of the industrial era and continues into the twenty-first century.*

Quite simply: the poor have always been with us, and being poor in America has always been an awful state of being. The reasons for American poverty have varied over time, but two points stand out: 1.) non-white people have often been poorer than whites and 2.) living in a land of plenty doesn’t help when you’re denied access to political rights and economic resources by those who use force and privilege to play by their own rules and keep a bigger share of the American economic apple pie.

Poverty and alcoholism run rampant on the Pine Ridge Oglala/Lakota Indian reservation in South Dakota, where the shadow of history looms large.

Poverty and alcoholism run rampant on the Pine Ridge Oglala/Lakota Indian reservation in South Dakota, where the shadow of history looms large.

Let’s just consider a few general examples, shall we? Native-Americans continue to live in some of the most poverty-stricken conditions in America. African-Americans have tended to fare better in recent decades, but the wealth gap between blacks and whites in America continues to be vast – and it’s still widening. Now what types of experiences could blacks and Native people have possibly shared during the long formation of modern America?

Well, native tribes were, from the colonial era well into the twentieth century, forcefully removed from their ancestral lands (most notably under Andrew Jackson, champion of  democracy for all white men) and relocated onto reservations that – thanks to government indifference – became sites of generationally reoccurring poverty. And they were the lucky ones when you consider that hundreds-of-thousands of other native people were exterminated under U.S. government policies that were, by any measurement, genocidal. Those who survived endured, and still endure, prejudice and discrimination even after they gained franchise rights. In the twenty-first century, counties with American Indian reservations still contain some of the highest percentages of people living in poverty in the U.S. Considering the historical background, is that much of a surprise?

African-Americans endured similar violence and subjugation throughout much of U.S. history. First brought to the American colonies as slaves, blacks endured generations as human property that was bought, sold, and abused by whites who supposedly lived by the creed that “All Men are Created Equal.” Even after the Civil War ended slavery, blacks spent another generation fighting for political and social rights as free people. From the mid-nineteenth century up to the mid-twentieth century, white America denied blacks full access to political and economic equality, and anti-black prejudice was enforced by the swords of domestic terror groups like the Ku Klux Klan and lynch mobs.

An image of urban poverty in America. This guy must be lazy because just look: he's lying down!

An image of urban poverty in America. This guy must be lazy because just look: he’s lying down!

Even as southern blacks left the countryside for the cities during the Great Migration, whites used, and continue to use, tactics like redlining, white flight, discriminatory tax incentives, and mortgage discrimination to drain wealth out of the cities and limit economic opportunities for blacks trapped therein. Should it be any surprise, then, that poverty has historically been high in black communities? No, it shouldn’t.

It’s easy to say that history is in the past, and that the past shouldn’t be used as an excuse for conditions in the present. But those who spout variations of that sentiment are often, not coincidently, white males who have never been on the historical receiving end of apartheid, genocide, forced labor, cultural decimation, disenfranchisement, and mass discrimination. This isn’t to say that individual Native-Americans and African-Americans haven’t reached levels of success in American society. They have. Nor am I saying that white Americans haven’t endured – and continue to endure – grinding poverty. They have.

But those like Paul Ryan, who continue to insist that poverty is the pure result of some sort of cultural (or racial) defect, and not the result of a multiplicity of structural issues – not least of which is the concentration of American wealth and political power into fewer and fewer hands – are polluting public discourse with claims that stem not from reality, but from ideology. Conservatives shy away from the structural reasons for poverty because these reasons expose critical flaws in their conceptions of free-market capitalism as the organic, natural, and just way to organize a society.

Capitalism has many virtues and, when properly regulated by the state or other appropriate forces, it can improve the standard of living for millions of people. But as a system designed and implemented by flawed humans, capitalism is not immune to the worst of all human instincts: greed and the will to dominate others. For Paul Ryan to recognize these realities would entail a re-examination of his cherished faith in unfettered market forces and a recognition that, as a white guy, he and others like him have had it made for quite some time.

* See Gary B. Nash, “Poverty and Politics in Early American History,” in Billy G. Smith, ed., Down and Out in Early America (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004), 1-14.

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