On George Will, Paul Ryan and Assumptions About Urban Poverty

I like George Will, and I enjoy reading his work. While I often find I don't agree with him, he is smart, thoughtful, embraces an historical perspective and tends to focus on subjects about which he also is well-researched. I read his Washington Post piece about the dust-up over Paul Ryan's comments on the cultural dimensions of inner-city poverty, then, with great interest.

Until I finished the first paragraph. By then, I was just sad and angry. In no small part as a result of my respect for Will, I found myself wondering what was wrong with me for feeling this way. Am I, in fact, the kind of old-school, can't-learn-from-the-data liberal he was excoriating? Or was there really something dismissive in his piece that should offend, or at least spark concern?

So, I tried to unpack it.

Will cites data demonstrating the dramatic rise in children born to single-parent families since the Civil Rights Act. He notes that this is true across racial lines, but then specifically cites the magnitudes of these increases in black and Hispanic populations. He goes on to assert that children fare better, have better long-term outcomes and receive more social capital when raised in two-parent households.

Check. The data is there. It causes twinges that Will chose to focus so heavily on black and Hispanic populations. His article is focused on urban poverty, however, and most urban centers have higher concentrations of people of color, so one could understand the focus. His comments evoke a legacy of white assertions about inferiority and lack of morality among people of color that far pre-date the Civil Rights Act and come from a pernicious place. That doesn't mean that's where Will is coming from, however. Lots of language evokes legacies we don't like without intent to do so.

The next part of Will's argument stems from Daniel Patrick Moynihan's controversial mid-1960's report that showed welfare cases increasing nationally even as unemployment rates among black men decreased. He adds to that references from economist Nicholas Eberstadt, who extrapolated from his own data that, "a large part of the jobs problem for American men today is that of not wanting one." I don't know how Moynihan's report got its data, but let's stipulate that the relationships were, in fact, inverse.

So there are, in fact, parts of Will's argument that challenge classic elements of liberal doctrine and force one to face questions about cultural structures such as that of the American family. I acknowledge these and am prepared to account for the resulting discomfort. Even so, there are reasons to be mad and sad.

For example, there's a trip one takes between Eberstadt's labor data and the decision to attribute said data to a lack of interest in working among people of color that is a trip of choice, not obvious conclusion. An organization I ran spent weeks one summer chatting with nearly 1000 people in a predominantly black neighborhood in Boston that experienced extremely high poverty and crime rates. We didn't hear, "I don't want to work." We heard, "I want to make a better life for my kids. But I'm stuck and struggling." That's real testimony from now, not research from 1965.

At the beginning of Will's piece, he calls critics of Paul Ryan's comments, "shrill and boring." That kind of sniffy dismissal is offensive in and of itself. Maybe even more so to a woman reader who knows what "shrill" can mean the same way she knows what "bossy" means.

More importantly, however, it demonstrates inadequate understanding of just how much Ryan's language, did, in fact, evoke the legacy of white belief about the inferiority of people of color that was used to create breathtaking, structural inequality whose aftershocks we still experience.

Here are some undeniable facts, too. Redlining happened. Social Security was enacted with a carve-out to keep domestic workers from receiving the benefit. Domestic workers were people of color. In the 20th century, then, well past the passing of the Civil Rights Act, black and Hispanic Americans were systematically kept from building homeownership and retirement assets that help support generations of family stability and the handing down of all kinds of capital -- social and otherwise.

That doesn't mean Paul Ryan shares those beliefs. I've written in these pages before that I believe he actually cares deeply about poverty. But there's a difference between saying, "I know what this could have sounded like, but you're wrong to assume that's what Paul Ryan means and need to challenge yourself to look at the data with clear eyes," and, "You're boring and shrill," with a silent follow on of, "Why can't you just get over it?"

Yesterday is yesterday, and progress is happening. Nevertheless, Will's piece still carries some assumptions -- assumptions of choice -- at least linked to the past, even while condemning people who hear them as such. I went through my process of self-reflection and embraced where my reactions were knee-jerk. It would behoove Will to do the same.