There’s no doubt that Paul Ryan’s recent comments on the problem of poverty in America (which you can listen to here) were imbued with more than a small hint of racism. And, as Paul Krguman has argued, “today’s G.O.P. favors the interests of the rich over those of ordinary families.”
But what’s been overlooked in the recent furor of Ryan’s racism and the tax-cutting measures favored by Republicans is another dog-whistle theme: working-class sloth. Both Ryan and conservative commentator George Will can talk all they want to about the “culture of poverty” but what they’re most concerned about—which, in this political culture, they do nothing to hide—is the need to force workers to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to employers. That’s the real cultural problem they’re focused on.
Here’s Will, backing up Ryan:
To say that poverty can be self-perpetuating is not to say, and Ryan did not say, that poverty is caused by irremediable attributes that are finally the fault of the poor. It is, however, to define the challenge, which is to acculturate those unacquainted with the culture of work to the disciplines and satisfactions of this culture.
OK, then, let’s focus on the culture of work. Let’s talk about the injustice of not being able to find decent jobs at decent wages. Let’s discuss what it means to be dependent on the whims and wishes of employers, who can choose to hire (or not) workers if and when they want to—and then impose the conditions under which that work will be performed. Let’s take seriously the idea that workers, if they’re lucky, manage to find a job only to have a large portion of the value they produce appropriated by someone else.
Because, in the end, that’s all Ryan, Will, and the other “culture of poverty” commentators are worried about: that if a large portion of the population isn’t acquainted “with the culture of work to the disciplines and satisfactions of this culture,” the tiny minority at the top won’t be able to get theirs.
You want to talk culture of work, then? Let’s imagine and enact a culture of work in which those who do the work actually have a say in how much work there will be, under what conditions that work will be performed, and what will be done with the value that is created above and beyond what those workers need to reproduce their social existence.
That’s a discussion worthy of our attention.