Yesterday, Paul Ryan spoke at length on a conservative radio talk show about the role of work in raising people out of poverty. Asked what the Republican plan was to end poverty, he replied:
In a nutshell, work works. It’s all about getting people to work. And when you were one of the leaders of welfare reform in the 1990’s, we got excoriated for saying that as a condition of welfare, people should go to work and it should be a bridge not a permanent system. And it worked very well, but there were dozens of other welfare programs that didn’t get reformed that have sort of overtaken events and have now made it harder for people to get into work. We call it a poverty trap….
That’s the tailspin that we’re looking at in our communities. You know your buddies Charles Murray or Bob Putnam over at Harvard, those guys have written books on this, which is 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 hard work so there’s a cultural problem that has to be dealt with. Everyone has got to get involved.
And the usual reaction comes in 3, 2, 1…
My colleague Congresswoman Ryan’s comments about “inner city” poverty are a thinly veiled racial attack and cannot be tolerated. Let’s be clear, when Mr. Ryan says “inner city,” when he says, “culture,” these are simply code words for what he really means: “black.”
That’s from Representative Barbara Lee. We hear something similar from Al Sharpton, who calls it a “dog whistle,” a message that is supposed to be inaudible to everyone else, heard only by Ryan’s secret racist audience. So how comes Sharpton and Lee are the only ones who can hear the whistle?
This is why we can’t have nice things.
Or rather, this is why we can’t have a civil and intelligent discussion about poverty or welfare reform. Or any discussion at all. Because every time someone on the right opens his mouth, he is immediately denounced as a secret bigot speaking in racial “code.”
This is an obvious act of psychological projection, because it is the left that has long since converted all discussion of economic policy and the welfare state into mere place-holders for racial politics. They are the real code-talkers, and the motive is obvious: precisely to shut down discussion of these issues, leaving the unreformed status quo in place.
While this may serve an obvious political end, it certainly does no favors to the poor to rule honest discussion of their plight to be out off limits. In fact, it validates Ryan’s argument that those who want to reform welfare are actually more compassionate than the average “progressive,” whose compassion begins and ends with voting for a politician who promises to throw other people’s money at the problem. As Ryan puts it, “if you’re driving from the suburbs to the sports arena downtown by these blighted neighborhoods, you can’t just say: I’m paying my taxes and government is going to fix that.”
And the chart cited by Al Sharpton, that noted policy wonk, to refute Ryan actually confirms his point. Sharpton claims that the welfare state has reduced the poverty rate from 26% to 16%, but if you look at the fine print, it reads: “factoring in safety net,” i.e., welfare payments. As I have pointed out elsewhere, this means that many of those who have been “helped” by the War on Poverty are still unable to provide for themselves. The welfare state has not cured poverty, it is merely ameliorating the symptoms. Which is precisely what Ryan was talking about when he said that the welfare state is “a poverty management system.”
All of this is an excellent example of my point about how “narrative thinking” has taken over the left. This is the underlying reason we can’t have a conversation about poverty and the welfare state. There seems to be no point in citing facts, data, or arguments about poverty and its causes. It’s a language the left can’t bring themselves to understand. Instead, they prefer to think in terms of images and metaphors, like “the bridge at Selma.” Needless to say, these are self-flattering metaphors, in which they’re all Martin Luther King, Jr., and their opponents are all Bull Connor.
This is the real “code” spoken by the left, and it’s why they won’t allow a real conversation about welfare (and a great many other things) with those whose code is facts, reason, and the ordinary usage of the English language.