william_spriggs.jpgThe furor has not died down over the comments by U.S. Rep. Paul, Ryan, R-Wis., about inner city men and poverty in America. Ryan agreed to talk with the Congressional Black Caucus about the racial overtones of the comments.  Still, a troubling theme in America is the concept of the “deserving” poor.

The problem with Ryan’s statement and the current unwillingness to raise the minimum wage is a new sense among conservatives that there are no “deserving” poor.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., told us in 1967:  “In the simplistic thinking of [the early part of the 20th Century], the absence of worldly goods indicated a want of industrious habits and moral fiber.

“We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will.

“The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands it does not eliminate all poverty.”

Unfortunately, we are back to Dr. King’s square one discussing poverty.  Being poor again means you are not industrious. The government that Ryan promotes is for the industrious company that ships American jobs overseas, gives tax breaks to the oil industry and farm subsidies to huge industrial agricultural firms.

Ryan’s government is not supposed to extend unemployment insurance benefits to support American families struggling to find work or help low-income children eat.

On these counts, too many are like Ryan. But the reality is closer to Dr. King’s assessment of the problem at hand.  Let’s lay out the facts. 

The majority of poor non-senior households in America have someone who works (62 percent); and, yes, Rep. Ryan, this is also true for African Americans. 

Further, roughly one in five poor households has a full-time, year-round worker; and, yes, Rep. Ryan, this is also true for African Americans.  Eighty percent of families with children receiving means-tested assistance for food, housing or health insurance have a worker in the family.

The new view is that the working poor are not “deserving” because times have changed, less educated workers are “too lazy” to have read the message and did not put in the effort in school they should have – they “deserve” low wages.

But since Dr. King’s speech, the educational attainment of Americans has increased dramatically, so the poor cannot be simply those who dropped out of high school. 

Again, among families with children receiving means-tested assistance, 40 percent have some college coursework, an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree – or more.

A direct way to address this anomaly would be to at least return the minimum wage to the level when Dr. King shared these words.  President Barack Obama’s proposal of $10.10 an hour would be a huge down payment toward doing that and would mean full-time, year-round workers could lift a family of three out of poverty.

But, in the midst of the continued fallout of the Great Recession on family incomes and employment, we must come to see that poverty is about more than work or individual effort.  It is about policy choices we make, choices like Ryan makes to promote fiscal austerity instead of closing the huge $750 billion gap America suffers from having more than 10 million people unable to find work.

The income of our nation has more than doubled since Dr. King spoke on poverty, increasing by almost $28,000 (adjusting for inflation) for every baby, toddler, teenager, adult and senior citizen in this country –enough to have eradicated poverty.

Ryan and conservatives want us to believe the rich are entitled to all that growth and that the one percent are entitled to a free society for free.

Let us hope we share Dr. King’s conclusion: “We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging to archaic thinking. The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them.

“The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”

William E. Spriggs is chief economist with the AFL-CIO and is a professor in, and former chairman of, the Department of Economics at Howard University.  He is also former assistant secretary in the Office of Policy at the U.S. Department of Labor. You may follow him on Twitter: @WSpriggs