I’m of three minds about the controversy surrounding Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) recent comments about the work ethic of men living in our inner cities. Taken in isolation, the comments were deeply stereotypical and disrespectful. Any effort to take the racial assumptions out of his comments will fail for the simple reason that we know which ethnic groups predominate in our inner cities. Let’s look at the part of the interview he did with Bill Bennett that caused an uproar:

“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.”

As a kind of gesture of good faith, I’d like to warn all conservatives that you cannot cite Charles Murray approvingly on any matter touching on race without getting accused of peddling racism. It’s going to happen to you every time so, before you cite him, you should decide if it is really your desire to be seen in that light by a large number of people.

Having said that, if you read that Ryan excerpt in context, it doesn’t sound nearly as bad as it does in isolation. The basic premise he was addressing is that kids need mentors who will teach them certain values, including the importance of work, and that if kids are growing up without mentors it can lead to a cycle of grinding poverty. Put more innocuously, if you have very high persistent unemployment in the inner cities, you are going to have a lot of adults who aren’t holding down jobs and setting that example for their kids. But there are still two big problems with what Ryan said.

First, he went too far and argued that there are “generations of [black/Latino] men not even thinking about working.” This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how ghetto economics work. In 2004, I was a community organizer for ACORN/Project Vote working out of an office in predominantly black North Philadelphia. My job was to hire, train, and deploy (mainly) young adults from that blighted and crime-ridden community to do voter registration and Get Out the Vote drives in suburban Montgomery County. When I put an advertisement in the paper, I was completely deluged with people looking for work. My challenge was to try to find the people who would stick with it and succeed, but I had to turn most applicants away. The hunger for work was overwhelming.

I discovered over time that nearly everyone had a way of making money, despite the fact that they were officially unemployed. I learned about a shadow economy that encompassed more than a mere black market. There were the legitimate under-the-table jobs that aren’t accounted for in government statistics and are taken on day-to-day: unloading trucks, working as a construction laborer. There were the semi-legitimate jobs: using your car as an unlicensed taxi. There were the hustles: making DVD’s of movies with a camcorder, selling fake auto-tags for inspection and registration. There were other non-violent criminal enterprises, like selling stolen t-shirts and the like. Ironically, I found that the people who were the best at getting people to register to vote were the people who set their alarm clocks for early in the morning so that they could go out and work their hustle and make some money. They worked extremely hard, and when given something legitimate to do, they excelled. The reason these people came to me in droves for a low-paying job is because they craved the legitimacy of socially-approved work. Their community was absolutely starved for that kind of work.

That being said, a lot of these young adults were not prepared to enter a standard work place. I had tremendous difficulty getting them to provide all the documentation that you need to get a legitimate job. So many of them had no Social Security card, or driver’s license, or any clue where to find their birth certificate. They also spoke a dialect ill-suited for most workplaces, and they didn’t have the computer skills that are required for a lot of entry-level jobs. But they wanted those skills and I gave out a lot of advice about how to get them. Most of all, I came to love and respect these people and their culture, and not to look down on them as shiftless layabouts or violent criminals. Of course, there are plenty of those in our ghettos, too, but they aren’t the kind to answer my job postings.

Paul Ryan has a cartoonish view of the people who live in our inner cities, in part, because he doesn’t know them. Because he doesn’t know them, he doesn’t understand what they need. He’s right that they need jobs and would benefit from more mentors, but their work ethic is just fine. They work hard. What they need is legitimate work and access to the education and job-training that is required for legitimate work.

And that gets to the second thing wrong with Ryan’s remarks. His prescriptions won’t create jobs in our ghettos. If anything, by pulling a huge amount of capital out of our ghettos, he’ll increase the poverty rate and make it harder for people to pool enough money to take a step up.

This problem of persistent intergenerational poverty in our inner cities is vexing, but alleviating it isn’t rocket science. You need a combination of more jobs for low-skilled workers and big investments in job training. Because the manufacturing base in this country is no longer very low-skilled, the job training component is more important than ever.

So, the really offensive thing about Paul Ryan’s comments isn’t so much that he said that black and Latino men in our cities don’t even think about working. The offensive thing is that he thinks that convincing them to think about working will actually get them a job.

They’re already working. Everybody’s got to eat.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com