Paul Ryan’s much-needed history lesson: What he really needs to learn about urban poverty

It's great that the conservative wants to learn more about our cities' poor. He can start with some basic reading

Topics: Poverty, Paul Ryan, GOP, 2016 Elections, The Right, Jacob Riis, Books, authors, Lincoln Steffens, ,

Paul Ryan's much-needed history lesson: What he really needs to learn about urban povertyPaul Ryan (Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Paul Ryan is intent on learning about poor people, a new glowing profile by BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins explains, and he’s going to do it by talking to some. Ryan, you’ll recall, recently opined that a “tailspin of culture” within inner cities is effectively causing urban poverty, remarks that demonstrate just how much the congressman is in need of education on the topic.

The central problem with his remark about culture is that it ignores the long history of poverty within the urban centers of our country. Whereas Ryan and the GOP would like to present this dilemma as merely a cultural divide, a closer look at U.S. history shatters this oversimplified narrative. Back in the late 1800s, muckrakers like Jacob Riis and Lincoln Steffens described a strikingly familiar world where gangs, crime, and corruption reigned within American cities. This was an era when inner cities were dominated by European immigrants, not African-Americans, yet still faced the same poverty and strife of today.

Written in 1890, “How the Other Half Lives” by Jacob Riis provides a glimpse of urban life familiar to the inner city youth of 2014. For example, gangs were as much a product of their environment back then as they are today. As explained by Riis, “The gang is the ripe fruit of tenement-house growth. It was born there, endowed with a heritage of instinctive hostility to restraint by a generation that sacrificed home to freedom, or left its country for its country’s good.” In this quote about gangs, Jacob Riis isn’t speaking about African-Americans. He is referring to European immigrants; Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Polish immigrants who lived in crowded New York tenements.

Riis doesn’t blame the various social and economic dilemmas of the tenements on a “tailspin of culture.” Rather, the famed journalist goes into great detail, uncovering the multitude of reasons why tenement life was so difficult on recent European immigrants. He describes the inhabitants of the tenements as suffering from overcrowded dwellings, corrupt political machines, life-threatening public health conditions, child labor, gangs, and juvenile crime. As Riis states in “How the Other Half Lives,” endemic poverty was entrenched in the tenements:

The truth is that pauperism grows in the tenements as naturally as weeds in a garden lot. A moral distemper, like crime, it finds there its most fertile soil. All the surroundings of tenement-house life favor its growth, and where once it has taken root it is harder to dislodge than the most virulent of physical diseases.

This pauperism and extreme poverty also led to violence. Riis even cites a census that explains the prison population in that era, stating, “The percentage of foreign-born prisoners in 1850, as compared with that of natives, was more than five times that of native prisoners, now (1880) it is less than double.” Whereas Ryan and conservative cheerleaders like Bill O’Reilly often bemoan the fact that African-Americans have a high rate of incarceration, over one hundred years ago “foreign born prisoners” from Europe made up the majority of the American prison population.

Furthermore, Riis wrote “The Battle With the Slums” in 1902, highlighting that urban dilemmas affect everyone, regardless of ethnic or cultural origin:

It is the misfortune of the slum boy of to-day that it is really so, and that he knows it. His father is an Italian or a Jew, and cannot even speak the language to which the boy is born… He loses his grip on the boy. Ethical standards of which he has no conception clash…  It depends now upon chance what is to become of the lad. But the slum has stacked the cards against him.

Whereas the “slum boy” of 1902 might have been of Italian or Jewish heritage, the inner-city male at the heart of Paul Ryan’s comments is African-American or possibly Latino. Riis explains that the “the slum has stacked the cards against” the slum boy in 1902 and the same could be said of inner city youth in 2014.  Like the European immigrants who made up the majority of the prison population in 1850, the conditions of inner cities today lead to dire consequences. According to the NAACP, inner-city crime is “prompted by social and economic isolation.” While the poverty rate in the U.S. is around 15 percent, in the inner cities it rises to over 30 percent. According to Kim Zeuli, senior vice president and director of research and advisory at Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, “Despite the fact that there are a greater number of people living in poverty in America’s suburbs, poverty and unemployment remain overwhelmingly concentrated in inner cities.” Like the overcrowded tenements in “How the Other Half Lives,” the population density (combined with joblessness) of inner cities provides a breeding ground for crime. An alarming example of this structural link between crime and poverty is Little Village, the largest Hispanic neighborhood in metropolitan Chicago. In a community living within 4.4 square miles, the crime statistics in 2006 were staggering. Chicago police recorded 2,625 crimes that also included 1,222 thefts, 268 robberies, 22 criminal sexual assaults and 11 murders.

As for wealth inequality and poverty, these dilemmas are also addressed in “The Battle With the Slums.” Riis explains that the poverty within American cities in the early 1900s didn’t have to exist: “The poor we shall have always with us, but the slum we need not have. These two do not rightfully belong together. Their present partnership is at once poverty’s worst hardship and our worst blunder.”

Jacob Riis was a police reporter who wrote for several New York newspapers and witnessed poverty in the slums and tenements with his own eyes. He believed that if government made an effort to help people mired in overcrowded slums and tenement, then life for these citizens would progress immeasurably. He argued for improved city conditions like better housing and sanitation; issues that could help alleviate the systemic poverty found in the tenements. He also advocated that the upper and middle classes take an active role in building up the inner cities of his time period. In his autobiography, he stated, “I am a believer in organized, systematic charity upon the evidence of my senses.” This organized charity, if aimed at bettering the living conditions of slums, could separate poverty from the tenements.

In addition to Riis, Lincoln Steffens in 1904 wrote “The Shame of the Cities,” exploring corruption in cities throughout the country. As Steffens writes, the various problems faced by American cities can’t be pinned on any one group: “But no one class is at fault, nor any one breed, nor any particular interest or group of interests. The misgovernment of the American people is misgovernment by the American people.” Therefore, as Riis, Steffens and others illustrated over a century ago, societal dilemmas can’t be blamed on one group, or in this case, one group’s “culture.” As for the primary cause of such grandiose problems, he goes on to state that, “The commercial spirit is the spirit of profit, not patriotism; of credit, not honor; of individual gain, not national prosperity; of trade and dickering, not principle.” According to Steffens, the United States of late 1800s possessed citizens just as complacent as today; with voters as complicit as the corrupt politicians in ensuring that poverty and mismanagement remain a part of the American political system. People then, like today, were more interested in personal financial and individual gain than dealing with the overriding issues of poverty and political corruption.

Today, like a century ago, it is the realities of inner city life that cause gangs, crime and poverty. Like the European immigrants who preceded them, African-Americans and others in today’s inner cities must deal with the structural issues that lead to “an even longer stretch” into poverty’s grasp. As Paul Ryan launches his exploration into the real causes of urban poverty, he’d do well to begin with a little bit of U.S. history.

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