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March 23, 2014

“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 to value the culture of work, so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”
–  Rep. Paul Ryan

“ ‘Six days you shall labor and do all your work…’ ” (Ex. 20: 9).

Rep. Paul Ryan is being criticized for his statement that generational poverty is the result of a Welfare-dependent way of life which does not value work.

Many have interpreted this as a derogatory comment on black culture, with the term “inner cities” serving as a coded reference.  The remark is, also, considered racist because of the implication that black men are shiftless riffraff, a stereotype dating back to the days of slavery.

The reality, of course, is that the wealth of the Antebellum South was generated from the labor of slaves, while slave masters convinced themselves they were doing the work of the Almighty by giving slaves something useful to occupy their time.  Most of us know that.

A Need to Work

But Rep. Ryan gets it right in one respect. Human beings must be taught to value work. We are not born with that knowledge.

What we are born with is a need to work, in other words, to do something useful with our lives. This encompasses the need to put bread on the table, but is greater even than that. This need is tied to our sense of identity, to our self-respect, and to our independence.

With purposeful work – the work for which we were designed by God – we can conquer the world. Without it we are chaff, subject to the winds of fortune.

When work is chronically unavailable, the need within us goes unmet. Whatever the color of our skin, we grow restless, then angry, and finally despondent. We take up other activities – lawful or not – in an attempt to fill the void. We lash out randomly at whatever or whoever is within reach. Attempt to numb the pain with sex, drugs or alcohol. Deep down, however, the wound still festers.

This is what we see in our inner cities:  young people searching for something they cannot find. Hopes dashed, dreams shattered. And all against a background of poverty.

Marketable Skills

If a work ethic is to be restored, we must equip our inner city youth with marketable skills. To do that, we must improve inner city schools.  At the moment, the most underprivileged young people can realistically look forward to are menial jobs:

  • Waitress at a pizza place or behind the counter at a burger joint.
  • Sales clerk at a shoe or clothing store, in an upscale mall it takes two buses to reach.
  • File clerk in a posh downtown office, with no possibility of advancement.
  • Food service at a hotel or hospital.
  • Data entry or reception.  Many administrative positions are out of reach altogether, as they now require some college credit.

This is all honest employment, not to be denigrated.  However, these are minimum wage jobs which no increase in the minimum wage – however laudable – would turn into careers.  Our young people recognize that as readily as the rest of us, much as they might need a salary.

Hope and Employment Scams

Rep. Ryan may not be aware, but scams focusing on the unemployed abound.

A typical scam promises job seekers positions as “agents” or “financial managers.” These positions are bogus. Victims are tricked during the interview process into providing social security and bank account numbers, supposedly so that future paychecks can be deposited directly. Some are then victims of identity theft. Others are inadvertently involved in money laundering.

Another scam promises advantageous civil service placement. Candidates are shown actual civil service postings, given a rudimentary “test,” then told they have shown potential, and have qualified for more advanced coaching…at a fee.

If you think the victims of such scams are gullible, you have not walked in their shoes. People seize hope wherever they can – sometimes manufacturing it, when they should be wary. We live on hope as much as air.

Certain bankers have learned to rely on that fact. A lucrative business has developed targeting the inner cities and those with bad credit. Predatory lenders initially offer attractively low credit card rates to lure customers into running up charges. However, a single late payment will trigger huge penalties and substantially higher rates.

All of which runs counter to an assertion that there is no desire for employment in the inner city.

The Virtue of Patience

Finally, if we are to change American culture, we must teach our young people patience.  Patience is not a quality today’s culture favors. We want everything now. That attitude is, unfortunately, coupled with a sense of entitlement which is the antithesis of a work ethic.

Fragile egos (those that have been endlessly fed or endlessly deprived) resist direction, reacting to real and imagined slights. That will complicate job training, whoever undertakes the task.

But there is enormous pride in supporting one’s family and oneself, making something, achieving something, leaving one’s mark.  Any of our young people could benefit from that lesson.

Work.  It may just be worth breaking a sweat.


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