One time vice-presidential candidate and U.S. Representative Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, said earlier this year, “We have spent $15 trillion from the federal government fighting poverty, and look at where we are, the highest poverty rates in a generation, 15 percent of Americans in poverty.” The solution to this difficulty for Ryan and those in the radical wing of the current GOP with which he identifies, is to set aside all other potential explanations and to argue instead for sharp reductions in programs aimed at assisting the needy and vulnerable. One might liken this form of reasoning to a physician, confronted with a wound that has not healed as desired, turning to her patient and suggesting that since this is so and an effort had been undertaken, treatment and recovery were now the patient’s responsibility. Additionally, it was the patient’s body’s “fault” that the injury had not healed and so not only should she expect no additional medical aid with her wound, she should henceforth expect to be labeled a pariah for not mending as rapidly and completely as expected.
This sort of “logic” now animates Ryan and other Republicans in the House of Representatives who have sought large reductions in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and who also have sought deep cuts in other efforts aimed at supporting the poor or vulnerable, including unemployment assistance. Indeed, the House recently passed a bill, largely along party lines, containing cuts of $40 billion in SNAP, to take effect during the next 10 years, while imposing harsh restrictions on access to the program as well as arbitrary limitations on how long an individual may receive support. One nominal justification for these actions was a mantra of the need to curb overall spending. Another claim was that “waste, fraud and abuse” in the program required cuts, but there is no evidence that this oft-cited ideological holy trinity of concerns add up to anything like the reductions (by orders of magnitude) proposed by Tea Party conservatives. Instead, it seems clear that this action and the harsh conditions that accompanied it, stemmed not from genuine substantiation or concern about spending or monstrous “waste,” but from a willingness to “blame the victim” for their own woes, as sociologist William Ryan famously argued in a book by that title in 1970.
If poverty and unemployment remain persistently high in our slowly growing economy, Ryan and those who share his ideological belief in individualism and his loathing of government as an instrument of the commons, appear to be content simply to blame people who are not faring well in our present economic circumstance. They point to the poor and contend that they alone are the authors of their own difficulties, and they suggest explicitly and implicitly that the poor population’s laziness and willingness to take advantage of fellow citizens explain its penury. As I have written previously, this form of argumentation is hardly new in our polity, with its deep individualism and propensity to scapegoating as a mobilization device, but it simply does not reflect the complex interplay of issues and conditions which those in distress daily face.
Those factors include an economy that in real terms has not offered wage increases for those with high school or less education levels since 1973. Meanwhile, a just released Northeastern University study has shown that the rate of unemployment for the nation’s lowest income families, those earning less than $21,000 per year, now exceeds 21 percent, a number equivalent to the overall jobless rate during the Great Depression. In marked contrast, households with incomes of $150,000 or more are now experiencing a collective unemployment rate of 3.2 percent, a figure traditionally equated with full employment. When listing issues at play beyond individual attributes in creating difficulties for the poor, one should also include the reality that our federal government’s fiscal and other policy choices have contributed to a nearly unprecedented and rapid redistribution of income upwards in our nation during the last four decades, leaving those with the greatest wealth in a position to capture the major share of any new economic growth. In short, as a factual proposition, one cannot at once tell the poor that they are their own enemies and “should look at the want ads, where there are many listings,” as President Ronald Reagan once infamously argued during a downturn in the 1980s, and refuse to acknowledge the structural conditions those citizens confront as well as the ways in which government’s own choices have contributed to their situation.
But Congressman Ryan’s claims have nothing to do with real events or circumstances. His views are instead the product of an ideological framing that draws on the human penchant to “other” and to scapegoat in order to provide an explanation or mental map for otherwise seemingly intractable circumstances or concerns. In this case, one blames those suffering for their own woes and simply admonishes them as a group to “buck up” and overcome their distress through perseverance, and otherwise to stop “taking” from their fellow citizens.
Again, none of this bears any relationship to the actual conditions, attitudes or actions of the poor who, like all other groups, one should say, surely contains its share of louts as well as angels. Nonetheless, this argument provides Ryan and others searching for easy and alluring explanations of thorny concerns to present to fearful voters, ready balm for vexing problems. If the poor are wholly responsible for their condition, they may simply be blamed for it and “othered” for their unconscionable behavior. But if matters are more difficult, more nuanced, one cannot appeal to potential voters with facile and simple narratives of “good” versus “bad,” or “us” versus “them.”
And that, of course, is the point. Ideologies simplify complex realities, often grotesquely, and that simplicity is the source of their power. They appeal to a human hunger to make meaning on the one hand, and to do so very often by contriving to blame others for one’s insecurity or situation or both, on the other hand. The issue, therefore, if one is to overcome this propensity and, as a practical matter, prevent a share of our nation’s leaders from imposing additional suffering and injustice on a group of their fellow citizens, is to find a source that can state clearly that such contrivance and scapegoating cannot endure and to call for change. William Ury, the Harvard-based negotiator and mediation expert, has suggested that one must turn to what he calls the “third side” for such a force in scenarios of intractable conflict. In the present case, and as I noted in last week’s column, the “third side” is that very large group of Americans not already committed to the GOP’s fear-laden claims, who could demand an alternate course at the ballot box. The question this point raises in turn is who will lead them in doing so? Should such not occur, we may expect the poor to become poorer, in part as a result of macro-economic conditions and partly, too, as a consequence of some of their own government’s leaders’ actions, while being demeaned mercilessly as that cruel process unfolds, a profoundly unjust and unsustainable possible outcome.