John Boehner stopped by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC yesterday to give a speech laying out his vision for America’s economic future. The speech itself was a waste of time – roughly 15 minutes of bland praise for tax reform, spending cuts, deregulation, and all the other boilerplate conservative policy prescriptions. It wasn’t until the floor opened up for questions that Boehner said anything interesting.
Asked by an attendee what he thought of Rep. Paul Ryan’s newfound zeal for fighting poverty, Boehner offered a few observations on why he thinks joblessness continues to be a problem. In a nutshell, he thinks the unemployed have grown lazy and don’t want to work:
We’ve got a record number of Americans not working. We’ve got a record number of Americans… stuck, if you will. And I think it’s our obligation to help provide the tools for them to use to bring them into the mainstream of American society. I think this idea that’s been born out the last – maybe out of the economy last couple of years that, “you know, I really don’t have to work. I don’t really want to do this, I think I’d just rather sit around.” This is a very sick idea for our country.
Boehner then offered himself as an inspirational example for all the layabouts who can’t be bothered to drag themselves out of their cushy welfare-sponsored palaces. “I don’t know there was any moment in my entire bringing up that I didn’t have some kind of a job, whether it was throwing newspapers, cutting grass, mopping floors at the bar, tending bar, dealing with those characters that walk in every day. Trust me. I did it all!”
Isn’t that nice? Anyone who’s been following Paul Ryan’s poverty tour knows that one of the big reasons he’s doing it in the first place is to rehab the image that he and the rest of the GOP have earned over the years as being hostile to the poor and less fortunate. Ryan once happily divided the country into “makers” and “takers” – people who were worthwhile contributors to society versus people who leeched off the prosperity of others. He’s since disavowed that language and tried to inject some compassion into the GOP’s rhetoric when it comes to poor. (His policy prescriptions are paternalistic and seek to punish people for not being successful enough.)
So naturally Boehner, when asked about Ryan’s efforts, does everything he can to undo them and imputes onto the nation’s jobless the “sick idea” that they don’t actually want jobs. Igor Volsky at ThinkProgress rightly points out one of the traps of long-term unemployment is that the longer you’re unemployed, the less employable you become. “Research shows that being unemployed for nine months has the same impact on your odds of getting hired as losing four full years of experience from a résumé.” There are lots of unemployed people who want work, but they’ve been out of the game for so long (thanks to the recession) that it’s supremely difficult to get back in. And, it should be pointed out, Congressional Republicans made their situation a whole lot worse by refusing to extend long-term unemployment benefits.
This is the problem facing Ryan and other Republicans who want to change the public’s view of the GOP. The notion that poverty and joblessness are products of a lack of effort are ingrained into conservative thinking, so much so that the Republican Speaker of the House will stand before a right-wing think tank and pretend to speak in the voice of a lazy poor person who would “just rather sit around.”