Nobody in Washington talks much about the poor in America these days, even though they are more and more with us in the economic aftermath of the Great Recession. Perhaps that is why the Washington Post welcomed Paul Ryan’s recent declaration that he means to fight poverty “with kinder, gentler policies to encourage work and upward mobility.”
The Wisconsin Republican confided to a Post reporter that he has been “quietly visiting inner-city neighborhoods” — too quietly to gain any favorable publicity, until now — and consulting with all the usual suspects in the capital’s right-wing think-tanks. He wants everyone to understand that he is seeking to figure out the problems faced by poor folks and how he can help.
As a 2016 hopeful, Ryan evidently intends to rebrand himself as a “compassionate conservative,” the same propaganda meme deployed by George W. Bush and Karl Rove during the prelude to the 2000 presidential campaign, at a moment when the GOP badly needs appealing new images and ideas. The Bush gang dropped that gimmick well before they entered the White House, and it was never glimpsed again. But whenever a Republican spouts kinder, gentler, compassionate conservative babble, the vaunted cynicism of the capital press corps gets washed away in a warm bath of credulity.
But just to be clear, there is nothing new in Ryan’s perspective on poverty, which is impoverished indeed when set next to the outlook of his late mentor Jack Kemp, who became a conservative icon in Congress before he joined the cabinet as HUD Secretary. Although Kemp belatedly recognized the role of government in alleviating poverty, Ryan and the current crop of Republicans in Washington talk about volunteerism, charity, and spirituality as the only legitimate ways to address social problems – while all government support for the poor must be slashed or eliminated, as prescribed by their budget.
When Ryan suggests that volunteerism and charity will salve the injuries of the poor, he is merely reviving the “thousand points of light” hoax perpetrated by George Herbert Walker Bush back in 1988, when Reagan’s vice president had to distinguish himself from the cold-hearted attitudes and actions of that administration to run for the White House. It was nonsense then and it remains nonsense now, because the volume of private charity in America is utterly dwarfed by the government programs that preserve the poor from starvation.