On CBS’ “Meet the Press” Sunday, House Speaker Paul Ryan correctly observed that a special quality about America stands at risk today – its citizens’ belief that anyone, even those born into poverty, can rise as high as their grit and wit will take them.
The American Dream increasingly looks like a mirage for the working class. Blue-collar GOP voters who once relied on good-paying factory jobs now struggle right along with inner-city Democrats. They wouldn’t be quite so mesmerized by Donald Trump if the party’s policies were actually improving their lives.
Ryan, a Republican, knows this. He aims to force a GOP pivot on the question of poverty and economic mobility. No more writing the poor off as lazy moochers. He chastised himself for previously having referred to them as “takers” leeching off the “makers” of America.
“Sure, some people are going to … just live on the dole and not work because they prefer that,” he said. “That’s a small percentage of it. Most people don’t want to be poor. Most people don’t want to be dependent, and if we speak as if everybody is in this category, that’s wrong.”
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And yet, many GOP voters remain convinced that people on government benefits like it just fine, that they sit back and relax while hardworking taxpayers meet their needs.
That belief spurred North Carolina’s Republican leaders to tighten government aid restrictions in recent years, including new requirements forcing food stamp recipients to prove they’re working, volunteering or taking classes.
Perfectly reasonable, said Rep. Michael Speciale, a New Bern Republican, as the bill passed the House last year. “Short of telling them, ‘You can sleep all week,’ how much more reasonable can it get?”
Such cuts might be aimed at force-feeding the poor self-reliance, but they ignore the fact that the playing field remains tilted against the working class, be they inner-city minorities or rural whites.
Sociologist Andrew Cherlin says that in recent decades, the percentage of children living with unmarried mothers held steady in college-educated white families, but soared among whites with no high school degree. (It remained high, but didn’t rise, for blacks with no high school degree).
The death rate for middle-aged whites is rising. It’s falling for everyone else, a study by two Princeton economists shows.
As she gives the Republican response to President Obama’s final State of the Union address Tuesday evening, S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley should follow Ryan’s lead. Not just with sympathetic words, but with policy proposals targeted at the working class.
Many miles separate Ryan from Michael Speciale. If the GOP can’t close that gap, it could soon face a historic rupture from within.