In Context: Were Paul Ryan's poverty comments a 'thinly veiled racial attack'?

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 6, 2014.
U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 6, 2014.

The backlash to comments U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan made about poverty and inner-city residents suggested that the former vice-presidential candidate had been bigoted.

U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., former leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, called the Janesville Republican’s statement a "thinly veiled racial attack." And a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, another California Democrat, called the comments "shameful and wrong."

Ryan sparked the reaction by saying "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’s a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with."

The next day, he issued a statement, saying he had been inarticulate.

All of which creates an opening for In Context, a PolitiFact feature that aims to provide more context for comments that receive widespread attention.

The backdrop

Ryan made his remarks in a radio interview (pay wall) with national conservative talk show host Bill Bennett on March 12, 2014.

That was about a week after the release of "The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later," a report by the House Budget Committee, which is chaired by Ryan.

(PolitiFact National rated as True Ryan’s claim in the report that from 2010 to 2012, "deep poverty" -- the percentage of households that make less than 50 percent of the poverty line -- reached its highest level on record.)

Bennett, who served as education secretary in President Ronald Reagan’s administration, began the interview asking Ryan a couple of questions about energy, then he turned to poverty.

The interview

Bennett asked Ryan about work and about culture before Ryan made the comments that spurred controversy.

Bennett: OK. Let’s move on (the Conservative Political Action Conference). You gave a talk about poverty, lifting people out of poverty. A great party has a plan to help people get out of poverty. What’s the plan? What are the broad outlines? What’s the roadmap, as someone might say?

Ryan: 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 late ‘90s, we got excoriated for saying you know what, 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 did not 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. There are incentives not to work and to stay where you are; that’s not what we want in society. We want upward mobility, we want people to reach their potential. And so, the dignity of work is very valuable and important and we have to reemphasize work and reform our welfare programs like we did in 1996 so that we have an eye on getting people into the workforce. So, that’s really the goal here. And the point is, let’s get everybody in a system so they can maximize their potential and push for equality of opportunity versus what I would call sort of the liberal, progressive vision of equality of outcomes. And there’s a big difference in philosophy here and I think we’ve proven that work is important. There’s dignity in it, there’s self-worth in it, and there are a lot of people slipping through the cracks in America that are not reaching their potential and we as conservatives should have something to say about that.

Bennett: We had a report yesterday, Paul, from the Pew (Research Center) people on the millennials. We’re setting records in terms of people not working. Part of it is the economy, part of it is policy. But there’s a cultural aspect to this, as well, right? Boys, particularly, learn how to work. Who teaches boys how to work? You lost your dad at an early age. Who taught you how to work?

Ryan: Mentors and my mom. My dad’s friends, his buddies taught me how to hunt and taught me a lot of things, and my mom. And so --

Bennett: Hunting is not working, is it?

Ryan: Well, no, but you can learn -- by the way, you can teach your kids character in the woods. A lot of good life lessons are learned in a tree stand, Bill.

Bennett: You still haven’t sent me that ad, but I know. But the fatherless problem is a big one. This has something to do with people’s attitudes. I asked my boys the other day, you know my guys, what do you remember me saying most often? And of course, they gave me a bad time and said lately it is: "What’s that? What’d you just say?" Pretty funny, but they say: "Do your job, do your job."

Ryan: I remember more my mom was: "Suck it up, deal with it, and tough." Those are the things I remember her saying to me a lot.

"Tailspin" comment

(This is the point where Ryan makes the comments that sparked the backlash.)

Bennett: Suck it up, deal with it, tough – Betty Ryan. But I mean, a boy has to see a man working, doesn’t he?

Ryan: Absolutely. And so, that’s this tailspin or spiral that we’re looking at in our communities. You know your buddy (conservative scholar) Charles Murray or (public policy professor) 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 work; and so there’s a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with. Everybody’s got to get involved. So, this is what we talk about when we talk about civil society. If you’re driving from the suburb to the sports arena downtown by these blighted neighborhoods, you can’t just say: I’m paying my taxes,  government’s going to fix that. You need to get involved. You need to get involved yourself – whether through a good mentor program or some religious charity, whatever it is, to make a difference, and that’s how we help resuscitate our culture.

Bennett: You work as hard as about anybody I know. One of the things I’ve said in commencement addresses is you don’t really enjoy the leisure unless you work. What’s the leisure for, what’s the relief? I tell people, thank God it’s Friday, I understand that, but thank God it’s Monday, too. Aren’t you eager to sort of roll your sleeves up and get back into it?

Ryan: And produce. To just be -- I mean, achievement and accomplishment are so self-rewarding, it’s earned success, and that’s how people flourish when they feel the pride of succeeding and achieving a goal and they teach and pass those lessons on to their kids or to the kids they’re mentoring. And that is really what helps revitalize society and helps human flourishing, it helps people reach their potential. That’s the American idea. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote beautifully about this. We’re losing it in so many areas and we’ve got to get it back and each and every one of us has a role to play in that.

(There’s a little banter between Bennett and Ryan.)

Ryan: What I find is the status quo is, right now, a poverty management system -- in many ways, to the benefit of the managers. And so when you question the status quo of the government’s poverty -- this war on poverty -- you get all the criticisms from the adherents of the status quo who just don’t want to see anything change. We’ve got to have the courage to face that down, just like we did in welfare reform in the late 1990s. And if we succeed, we can help resuscitate this culture and get people back to work and get people back to meeting their potential and so many things can get fixed and healed in our communities and in our economy, as well.

Bennett then moves to another topic.