The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

March 31, 2014

Other Views: America still has work ethic

— Poverty in America is once again rising to the top of the political agenda. That’s never a good sign. Poverty should be so rare we pay it little heed.

But we live in times where poverty rates in America have risen to some of the highest levels in years (now about 15 percent, or 46 million people), and where discussion of poverty’s causes is once again creating a political divide that may thwart solutions.

Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan recently raised the issue on a talk radio show suggesting our work culture, not our economy was to blame.

He pointed to “inner city” pockets of people who don’t want to work. Ryan took straight aim at the culture and suggested that the ingrained set of beliefs we all tend to carry was somehow going south in a very serious way.

It seems he is suggesting our culture has somehow miraculously changed from a bootstrap culture to one where millions of Americans wake up lazy one morning. It’s hard to find evidence for his thesis beyond the talk-radio anecdotes.

And as families dictate culture, his comments pointed to the family and family structure, including single-parent households.

Ryan struck a chord that was easily interpreted as controversial and even racist, but many overlooked a more startling suggestion: America’s work ethic that has driven the American dream for more than two centuries was somehow faltering for those in poverty.

We think that’s a big leap of logic without a lot of evidence.

We are not so cynical to believe that the American dream and its corollary — the American work ethic — have suddenly declined into a culture of dependency on government or that there is some general cultural cancer smothering the idea that has driven America for centuries, the idea that if you work hard, you will get ahead.

We believe that the cause of poverty, as always, is complex and driven less by one’s “culture” and more by one’s environment. Unfortunately, today’s American work environment has fewer and fewer examples of people working hard and getting ahead.

People still work hard, but they have fewer opportunities, it seems, to get ahead.

It’s easy to see how people would get frustrated and downhearted. It’s dangerous to interpret that as a cultural shift, however.

In fact, some evidence suggests poor people are working harden than ever. A recent report from the Census Bureau showed 10.5 million Americans are considered working poor, the highest level in two decades. That’s about 7 percent of the workforce. If people are adopting the nonwork culture as Ryan suggests, this number should be dropping.

Americans are working harder and seem to face declining chances of achieving the American dream.

So maybe we have to create an environment that shows achieving the American dream is still possible, still reasonably achievable.

— Mankato (Minn.) Free Press

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