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Paul Ryan breaks the silence surrounding poverty in America [Commentary]

Cover your eyes and hide the kids: A Republican is talking poverty.

This has not been a pretty picture in the recent past. Who can forget then-South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer likening poor people to animals one feeds from the back door and Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning calling them stray raccoons? And let's not even get into Mitt Romney's wholesale slander of the so-called "47 percent."

So one receives with a certain trepidation the news that Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, has issued a proposal aimed at curbing poverty. But Expanding Opportunity in America, produced by the House Budget Committee Mr. Ryan chairs, is a surprise -- serious, substantive and sprinkled with interesting ideas. Not that you should take that as a blanket endorsement.

We lack the space to analyze it in detail, but in a nutshell, Mr. Ryan proposes an "Opportunity Grant," consolidating federal anti-poverty programs into 50 chunks of money to be administered by each state as it sees fit. The states would be encouraged to experiment and find creative ways of providing the necessary services to their citizens.

This is in keeping with GOP orthodoxy which holds that anything crafted by Washington will lack flexibility to meet the needs in local municipalities and thus it makes more sense to empower states to create programs tailored to their specific conditions.

Some of us are skeptical of the idea that giving states more power is a panacea. Some of us fear all that does is take one problem and turn it into 50. But to his credit, Mr. Ryan's proposal imposes performance standards and requires accountability. It is a blank check, but with strings attached.

One critic, Washington Post blogger (and former Obama administration economic adviser) Jared Bernstein, thinks the proposal reflects the GOP's "pervasive assumption that all you have to do to get a job is want a job." In that context, it's worth noting that Mr. Ryan was chastised in March for essentially blaming poverty on the laziness of black and brown men. In a radio interview he lamented "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..."

This, of course, ignores the fact that most poverty is neither black nor brown, but white. What "tailspin of culture" keeps Appalachia poor? Somehow that question is never addressed. The thing Mr. Ryan apparently does not know, but should, is that urban poverty is driven not by a lack of people wanting to work, but by a lack of work -- and skills and transportation.

Worse, Mr. Ryan cited as an authority Charles Murray, the infamous social scientist (he co-authored "The Bell Curve"), who argues the intellectual and moral inferiority of black and brown people. Which suggests Mr. Ryan, like too many in his party, still needs to wean himself from the noxious notion of poverty as a defect of character or heritage.

All that said, give him credit for what he's done here.

It is a national disgrace that the problem of poverty has been all but invisible in our culture and politics since the era of Lyndon Johnson. The only politician over that half-century who lifted it to the level of national discourse was John Edwards -- and then he went and got his career caught in his zipper.

Thus, one welcomes even this flawed proposal. One hopes it presages renewed GOP interest in an issue the party has largely ceded to the Democrats and spurs us all to reconsider what we can -- and should -- do to erase the specter of want in a land of plenty. For too long, we have responded to that urgent need only with silence.

So the best thing about Paul Ryan's proposal is the simple fact that it exists.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His email is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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