Paul Ryan is intent on learning about poor people, a new glowing profile by BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins explains, and he’s going to do it by talking to some. Ryan, you’ll recall, recently opined that a “tailspin of culture” within inner cities is effectively causing urban poverty, remarks that demonstrate just how much the congressman is in need of education on the topic.
The central problem with his remark about culture is that it ignores the long history of poverty within the urban centers of our country. Whereas Ryan and the GOP would like to present this dilemma as merely a cultural divide, a closer look at U.S. history shatters this oversimplified narrative. Back in the late 1800s, muckrakers like Jacob Riis and Lincoln Steffens described a strikingly familiar world where gangs, crime, and corruption reigned within American cities. This was an era when inner cities were dominated byEuropean immigrants, not African-Americans, yet still faced the same poverty and strife of today.
Written in 1890, “How the Other Half Lives” by Jacob Riis provides a glimpse of urban life familiar to the inner city youth of 2014. For example, gangs were as much a product of their environment back then as they are today. As explained by Riis, “The gang is the ripe fruit of tenement-house growth. It was born there, endowed with a heritage of instinctive hostility to restraint by a generation that sacrificed home to freedom, or left its country for its country’s good.” In this quote about gangs, Jacob Riis isn’t speaking about African-Americans. He is referring to European immigrants; Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Polish immigrants who lived in crowded New York tenements.
Riis doesn’t blame the various social and economic dilemmas of the tenements on a “tailspin of culture.” Rather, the famed journalist goes into great detail, uncovering the multitude of reasons why tenement life was so difficult on recent European immigrants. He describes the inhabitants of the tenements as suffering from overcrowded dwellings, corrupt political machines, life-threatening public health conditions, child labor, gangs, and juvenile crime. As Riis states in “How the Other Half Lives,” endemic poverty was entrenched in the tenements: