You perhaps more or less remember what congressman and former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan said on a radio talk show a few months ago about "work" and "culture." It led to a midsize flap about whether he is a racist.
More exactly, you may remember what the Wisconsin Republican said about non-work in inner cities and other American places. To refresh, here's the passage, which Ryan, when later obliged to defend his decency, conceded was "inarticulate":
"We've 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."
Yet while many remember at least the rudiments of what Ryan said on Bill Bennett's "Morning in America" program in March, only a tiny fraction of even the widest-read Americans are familiar with this next excerpt, authored by two other people on a near-identical theme:
"In sum, declining marriage rates among the less-educated, the corresponding rise in nonmarital childbearing and lower-skilled men's desultory participation in the child-support system all hint that a seismic shift has occurred in lower-skilled men's ability and willingness to shoulder the traditional breadwinning responsibilities of the family. According to our story, at the bottom of the skills distribution we see not just a withdrawal but a headlong retreat — it is nearly a dead run — from the breadwinning role."
Who might have written such flammable things? And if they haven't been pilloried by now (they haven't), why not?
The authors are Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson, husband and wife Harvard sociologists, in their important 2013 book, "Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City."
Just as with Ryan — not that critics have believed him — Edin's and Nelson's focus is on low-income men from diverse racial and ethnic groups, not just on African-Americans.
Of course, different rules often apply to politicians as opposed to scholars in sensitive matters like these — especially when the politicians are on the right and the scholars aren't. But while Ryan's off-the-cuff speech was less precise than the written prose of Edin and Nelson, they are all on the same (academically respected) page.
The national unemployment rate remains much too high at 6.3 percent. Minnesota's rate is substantially better at 4.6 percent, though still not low enough. Meanwhile, doubts have been growing about the wisdom of pursuing often crazily expensive college degrees.
But of all the identified obstacles to advancement for the disadvantaged, racism is regularly conceived, especially on the left, as the most deeply rooted and destructive. This is why criticism of Ryan was so nasty, as many critics assumed he had far too little appreciation of racism's length and reach. It angered and offended them that an influential member of Congress — someone who 16 months earlier almost became vice president of the United States — could be so allegedly obtuse on questions of race, which nearly by definition are morally loaded. To them I would simply say:
I know Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan is a friend of mine. And you don't have a clue about Paul Ryan.
That said, cultural and structural impediments to success can be very real, and they can injure some groups more than others (though not necessarily or only racial and ethnic groups).
Here, for instance, is how Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson put it in a conversation I had with him last fall for a new book coming out this summer. In talking about the current economic downturn and how "families of the working poor have been hit very hard," he said:
"All this is going on in a global economy where corporations are sending their jobs first to nonmetropolitan America and then to developing nations all over the world. If you take a trip around the country, go from town to town, from Detroit to Cleveland to Dayton to Philadelphia, these cities look as though they're economically strip-mined. Our poor people here are competing with poor all over the world."
Scholars such as Anderson and several others I interviewed, including historians Stephanie Coontz and Elaine Tyler May, invaluably make clear what many Americans, disproportionately black, often are up against. Nevertheless, I generally avoid terms such as "institutional discrimination" and "systemic discrimination" — not because they don't describe actual phenomena, but because they are regularly construed as saturating miasmas and are used to explain too much. They also can suggest a downplaying of personal responsibility, without which progress really does halt for those in the greatest need of advancing.
If the goal is to build careers and support families in the here and now — not eons away when all that is considered racially unjust and handicapping is no more — then cultural and structural impediments must be overcome by personal initiative and grit. If individual responsibility isn't understood as trumping trapdoors, nothing will.
Job One for job hunters is acquiring decent educations and sufficient skills. Which brings us to graduation rates in the Minneapolis public schools.
It's impossible to comprehend how anything other than entrenched poverty can result so long as four-year graduation rates remain under 40 percent for African-American, Latino and American Indian students in Minneapolis district schools. There aren't many family-supporting jobs in town for high school dropouts. And postsecondary institutions, no matter their commitment to poor Minnesotans, can't do very much to help if students are hundreds of miles away academically.
Yet whatever the deficiencies of schools, whatever the deficiencies of any other stymying "system," it is young people, not their elders, who are ultimately responsible for taking school seriously, working hard, graduating and then (one might hope) taking advantage of postsecondary opportunities of all sorts, including military service.
Young people, as well as their elders, also are ultimately responsible for staying on the right side of the law if they are to have much of a chance of building careers. It's hard to exaggerate how many lives are abridged by criminal records that prevent millions from winning good jobs. As a society, we have an obligation, in the words of another interviewee, to give ex-offenders a chance to live "civilized lives," once they are free of jail or prison. For him this meant — perhaps surprisingly, given that he's a conservative political scientist — urging governments to create jobs if they're really not to be found in the private sector by people with records.
Yet once again, ultimate responsibility lies with individuals. As for society's corresponding obligation, it's seeking to ameliorate barriers that can make breaking the law more tempting for those most constrained by them. This doesn't exculpate bad behavior; it only recognizes its reality. And by "society," I mean civil society mainly — as in churches, charities, universities, foundations and businesses — more than government.
All of which leads to an epilogue, not about people with little education, but those with a lot. Some claim too much.
Significant numbers of recent college graduates are facing structural impediments of their own, starting with mismatches between the specific skills many of them have (or lack) vs. the specific skills many employers require. Add to the mix a labor market in which many rebounding companies don't need as many white-collar (or blue-collar) workers as they did before the Great Recession — which is to say, before organizational survival instincts forced them to become more efficient and leaner. Or, from the vantage point of not a few, frighteningly meaner.
Still, an impression is sometimes left that this is just about the first time newly minted college graduates have had tough goes. It is not. Some things about the current job market are in fact fundamentally different and disconcerting, starting with perpetually increasing international competition. But it's not as if frustrating stretches don't go around and around, as they do. I, for one, used to be exceptionally adept at graduating during recessions.
Suffice it to say it would be a big mistake if, while we're urging many people to get more education, we wind up acquiescing if many others get less.
Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment. His newest book, "Broken Bonds: What Family Fragmentation Means for America's Future," will be released in August by Rowman & Littlefield.