Regarding the Irish potato famine, the New York Times’s Timothy Egan writes, “There is no comparison, of course, between the de facto genocide that resulted from British policy, and conservative criticism of modern American poverty programs.” He goes on to make precisely the comparison whose existence he denies, casting Paul Ryan in the role of Sir Charles Trevelyan. In addition to batting about average for a Sunday Review pontificator — the above quotation comprising the 24 sensible words in a 1,000-word column — Egan offers a perfect distillation of the liberal view of Paul Ryan and his concern about the culture of dependency: that it is “heartless,” “dangerous,” “mean-spirited,” and based on intellectual dishonesty.
On the subject of intellectual dishonesty, Ryan has been enduring an additional strand of unfair criticism for having cited a story told by a member of Scott Walker’s cabinet during congressional testimony, which turns out to be made up:
You know, a little boy told me once that what was important to him is that he didn’t want school lunch, he wanted a brown bag because the brown bag that he brought with his lunch in it meant that his mom cared about him. Just think what we have done. If this kid tells me a brown bag was more important than a free lunch, we’ve missed the whole notion of parents being there for their children because we’ve taken over that responsibility, and I think we need to be very careful about how we provide programs to families that don’t undermine families’ responsibilities.
The anecdote is fiction, though not Paul Ryan’s fiction, but the point it illustrates is heartbreaking nonfiction. We have millions of children in poverty because of families that cannot or will not meet their responsibilities to their children. Children of single-parent homes, which are overwhelmingly single-mother homes, are not only more likely to be poor but are more likely to stay poor. And so are their neighbors: New scholarship from Harvard and the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that children in single-parent households experience higher rates of economic mobility when they live in communities with relatively high levels of marriage — and that children of married couples experience lower rates of economic mobility when they live in communities in which single-parent households are prevalent. As W. Bradford Wilcox put it, it takes a married village.
What Paul Ryan understands, and what Timothy Egan and his ilk are professionally and politically committed to not understanding, is that the holistic effect of programs intended to help the poor is to make the lives of the poor worse in significant ways, mainly by encouraging the long-term dependency that concerns Ryan and others. By, for example, penalizing work and subsidizing unemployment, or by penalizing marriage and subsidizing single motherhood, the welfare state creates incentives for people to make choices for the sake of short-term benefits, choices that are destructive for themselves and their families in the long term. As economists at Georgia State University’s Fiscal Research Center put it: “The current federal and state tax-benefit system creates price and income effects. The price effects are due to the phase in and phase outs of the benefits from the programs analyzed in this report. In some cases, the cost of earning an additional $100 of income is a loss of benefits double that amount. The income effects of these programs may influence household decisions regarding work, investing in education and the acquisition of skills, and possibly even marriage and fertility.”
Ryan, in a conversation with Bill Bennett, linked the problem of welfare dependency to the “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.” For speaking of a true thing that must never be said, Ryan was ritually denounced as a racist by such inspiring figures as Representative Barbara Lee. If we assume as Ryan’s critics do that “inner city” is a synonym for “black,” then consider the facts: Unemployment among inner-city men of all races is estimated to run roughly twice the national rate, while unemployment among black inner-city men in cities such as Milwaukee and Detroit has been estimated to exceed 50 percent; 71 percent of working-age white men are in the labor force, but the corresponding number for black men is only 63.6 percent — and going down. New York City manages to graduate barely half of its black male students from high school — and among high-school dropouts, two-thirds reach the age of 26 without ever having held a full-time job lasting at least one year. And perhaps most significant, the vast majority of blacks are born out of wedlock. You could not come up with a more effective system for producing poverty if you tried. If Paul Ryan is a racist for criticizing those conditions, what shall we call the people who run New York City’s public schools or those who govern Detroit — the people who help create those conditions?
The evidence regarding poverty, single motherhood, and economic mobility is overwhelming. It is as close to “settled science” as the social sciences have to offer. The question that must be answered is whether the poor’s actual interests are served by those who would help direct them toward marriage, work, and stability, or by those who loudly advertise their own compassion, which, conveniently, costs them very little and pays them very well.
This is a familiar situation for conservatives, whose Sisyphean task is to explain to the community at large the difference between the intended results of government programs and the actual results of government programs. Spending more money on Head Start and Medicaid sounds like a very good idea until one confronts the evidence that those programs provide few if any lasting and measurable benefits. A mature mind would understand that it is not only possible but likely that programs intended to benefit the poor will in fact harm them. The unhappy fact is that would-be reformers such as Paul Ryan are sitting opposite not mature-minded opponents but rather a collection of sentimentalists and opportunists; the former cannot understand the law of unintended consequences, while the latter are committed to exploiting the intellectual defects of the former for their own political benefit.
Which is to say: There is no comparison, of course, between a pimp who exploits the poor for his own gratification and a man like Timothy Egan.