There are a whole lot of useful idiots in America. Yesterday, a caller called into my radio show, and echoed Congressman Paul Ryan’s recent comments, blaming the black community for poverty in America. He threw out a Fox So-Called News phony statistic, arguing that “73 percent of African-American women in this country ages 17-35 have children without a man in the house, and the majority of this group of people live in the cities.”
First of all, that is completely false. According to the most recent government statistics, 72 percent of black babies are born to unmarried mothers today. But that is completely different from saying that “73 percent of African-American women in this country have children without a man in the house.” It's a perfect demonstration of the old saying, often attributed to Mark Twain, that, "Figures don't lie, but liars can figure."
In fact, the birth rate for unmarried black women in America has been falling for almost 40 years. And most of the evidence points to changes in unmarried birth rates among both black and white women in America that started in the 1970s, coinciding with the legalization of abortion and the beginning of widespread use of oral contraceptives, and largely unaffected over the years by changes in welfare programs.
So, why is it that Conservatives like yesterday’s caller, Fox So-Called News' useful idiots, and Congressman Paul Ryan are obsessed with the notion that blacks and the black community are responsible for poverty in America? Like so much that's wrong with America today, it all started with Reagan.
Reagan is famous for his speeches and one-liners about “welfare queens,” but as author Ian Haney Lopez pointed out in an interview on Moyers and Company, it all began with his earliest welfare stump speech in 1980. Reagan would speak to (white) Americans, and say something along the lines of, “I understand how frustrating it is for you when you’re standing in line at a grocery store waiting to buy hamburger, and there’s some young fellow ahead you waiting to by a T-Bone with food stamps.”
But, as Lopez points out, the first time Reagan gave that stump speech, “young fellow” was replaced with “young buck,” a racially-coded term for a young black man. Basically, Reagan was telling white Americans that they were being taken advantage of by blacks on food stamps, and that it was made possible by the government taking their money through taxes and then giving it to undeserving black people.
So, in response to the outrage that he drummed up, Reagan suggested his infamous tax cuts, dropping the top rate that billionaires pay from 74% down to 28%. After all, he told middle-class voters - who got a very small income tax cut - why should you pay taxes to a government that’s just turning around and giving that money to undeserving black people who are using it to eat fancy steak dinners?
This is very similar to the recent outrage over at Fox about people on food stamps buying crab and lobster, something that's possible but so rare that it has no effect on the overall tax we all pay for food stamps. Lopez goes on to say that, for the past 50 years, Republicans have been telling white Americans that the biggest threat in their lives are minorities, and that minorities have taken over government and are eating up all the money.
Just last week, Congressman Paul Ryan went on Bill Bennett’s Morning in America program, and said that, “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.” In other words, Ryan is saying that lazy black men are responsible for poverty in America.
For some 50 years now, Republicans have been using race-baiting tactics and dog-whistle politics like this to convince Americans that the black community is behind poverty in America, but that’s just not the case. After all, you can see many of the same trends in the largely white Appalachia region of the U.S. as you do in minority-heavy inner cities. In Appalachia, white Americans are struggling with poverty, and having children out-of-wedlock, just like their black inner-city counterparts.
And according to the Pew Research Center’s Social and Demographic Trends project, in 2012, the median net worth of a white household was $91,405, while the median net worth of a black household was $6,446. So a black child starts out at a very different place than a white child, both economically and socially. But Conservatives still argue that blacks are behind poverty in America. The social and cultural problems that we see in black communities across America, and in white communities in Appalachia, are responses to poverty, not the causes of it.
It’s time for Americans, and lawmakers in Washington, to wake up, and start talking about the real causes of poverty in America, which include massive inequality produced by our tax code, joblessness produced by our trade policies, and ongoing discrimination by a largely white economic and political power structure. Only then will every American have an equal shot at the American Dream, regardless of their race.