Recently in the Wall Street Journal, Paul Ryan had a touching, personal story about his changed attitudes on American poverty. Ryan discusses how he came to realize that rhetoric around welfare that reduces people to “makers and takers” is narrow-minded, inaccurate and offensive. It’s an important thing for Ryan, and the GOP, to realize. But Ryan and his party also need to go deeper into another insight the piece hints at, but doesn’t fully explore. Federal poverty programs may be woefully mismanaged and inefficient. But in America it’s not the poor who are going to bankrupt us, but the rich.
Whether it’s a GOP Senate candidate comparing food stamp recipients to “wild animals” or a GOP candidate for Arizona state representative saying slavery “wasn’t so bad” and “kept business rolling,” one would need to be pretty far underground to not see why the Republican party needs to work on its rhetoric around poverty. Over and over again, Republicans are having to apologize for stunts like suggesting that students from poor homes clean their schools in exchange for reduced price lunches. Even mainstream Republican ideas, such as drug testing welfare recipients, have been shown to be more class warfare than smart lawmaking. The programs cost more money than they save. They’re also unconstitutional, which you’d think would bother conservatives more than drugs.
Mitt Romney himself admitted that tapes which revealed him talking smack about “the 47%” who receive more in benefits than they pay in taxes severely hurt his campaign.
And this divisive, insulting rhetoric has impacted Republicans’ ability to effectively reach Black and Latino voters. The Economist looked into what the GOP has done to court these voting blocs and how it’s turned out. The answers are, a ton, and, pretty poorly. The article points to McKay Coppins of BuzzFeed reporting that the RNC announced early in 2013 intentions to spend “$10 million on an ambitious minority engagement initiative,” and to hire hired “at least 42 black and Latino field representatives, spreading them across the country in key states with the mandate to lay a permanent groundwork for future Republican candidates.” Furthermore, “They have recruited local surrogates, identified sympathetic business organizations and churches, and organized grassroots voter contacting. At the national level, Priebus has spoken at black colleges and given interviews to minority media outlets, preaching a gospel of inclusion and diversity.”
And for what? The Economist points out, rather depressingly, that the odds of winning a Mega Millions prize are better than getting a black person to vote for Mitt Romney.
And why? Well part of it is that Black and Latino voters first have always been much more likely to be in poverty, and second the recession has hit them particularly hard. The unemployment rate for Black college graduates aged 22-27 in 2013 was more than double college grads of all races. And that rate nearly tripled between 2007 and 2013.
It’s interesting to note, as the Economist does, that “the numbers, as reported by researchers Janelle Jones and John Schmitt, are at least partly attributable to racial discrimination in labour markets.” For example, “In Boston and Chicago, a white-sounding name gets your resume ‘50 percent more call backs from potential employers than [do] resumes with black sounding names.’ In law firms, partners are ‘more likely to point out spelling, grammar, and technical errors when under the impression the author was black.’”
Rhetoric, and policy, which blames poor people for being poor instead of addressing systemic barriers to class mobility will always fail with people who are paying attention.
Which is what Paul Ryan came to understand. He describes being at a county fair and having his own “makers and takers” rhetoric thrown in his face. “That day at the fair was the first time I really heard the way the phrase sounded,” he writes. “The phrase gave insult where none was intended. People struggling and striving to get ahead—that’s what our country is all about. On that journey, they’re not ‘takers’; they’re trying to make something of themselves. We shouldn’t disparage that.”
Exactly. And then he gets to the really good stuff. “Over the years, we’ve slowly been adding to the number of benefits that government provides to an increasing number of our citizens. Some of those benefits are worthy, laudable commitments, but others aren’t really the responsibility of government or the kind of thing we can afford.”
Ryan doesn’t specify what government benefits “aren’t really the responsibility of government or the kind of thing we can afford.” Certainly he outlined many ineffective and wasteful anti-poverty programs in his anti-poverty plan. But what he hasn’t touched in a while are the least effective and most wasteful government benefits programs in the history of the United States: Social Security and Medicare.
Not that he hasn’t touched on these fiscal and moral disasters before. He’s done everything from submitting budgets which slash them to outlining plans to privatize them. First, because they are financially insolvent and therefore will stop paying out benefits sooner or later, and getting ahead of the curve is obviously better policy. But also because together, they are the single biggest contributor to our unsustainable national debt. Nothing touches entitlement spending, and the vast majority of that is Social Security and Medicare.
Then there’s the moral issue. While most federal anti-poverty programs are inefficient and ineffective, at least they move money from rich to poor. Social Security and Medicare do the opposite. They are generational warfare and incredibly regressive, taking money from the young and relatively poor and giving it to the old and relatively wealthy. In reality, the “makers and takers” who matter aren’t poor people taking from the rich. The takers who are going to bankrupt us have never touched a welfare check.
When Ryan talks of worthy, laudable commitments, this is of course America’s responsibility to its poor. And when he discusses spending on programs which “aren’t really the responsibility of government or the kind of thing we can afford” he, and others in the GOP, really need to start talking explicitly about entitlement spending. For too long, the GOP has been seen, especially by Blacks and Latinos, as the party of the rich and against the poor. By tackling entitlement spending alongside aside welfare reform, the GOP will first be focusing on the more pressing issue, economically.
But it’s also a great way to challenge perceptions about Republicans and class warfare. And the GOP desperately needs better rhetoric, because they’re the only party with any possibility of reforming the government spending that’s really hurting us.
This post originally appeared at TonyStiles.com.