The Historical Language of “Just Stop Being Poor”

Caitlin Petrie

It is so easy to forget historical events and how those events affect today’s society. It’s even easier to forget the language of the past and how today’s politicians are recycling that language. United States Congressman Paul Ryan is a perfect example of this. Journalist Timothy Egan wrote an article in the New York Times entitled Paul Ryan’s Irish Amnesia.   Egan highlights that the exact language Ryan uses to bash American poverty assistance programs contradicts his Irish heritage.

Many of us know that Ireland suffered a great famine in the 1740s that is popularly referred to as the Irish Potato Famine. This famine caused the death of millions of people and a tremendous influx of Irish immigration to the United States. As Egan points out, one of these Irish immigrants was Paul Ryan’s “great-great-grandfather”, something that Ryan is tremendously proud of. However, some may not know that the very language the English used to scapegoat the Irish is almost identical to the language Ryan uses for scapegoating the American poor.

According to Egan, English Tory politicians declared that if they helped eradicate the famine the Irish people would become “dependent on charity”, and that “such ‘charity’ would upset the free market, and make people lazy.” The rationale behind that language is the same as Ryan’s modern “culture of dependency”.  Irish historian John Kelly wrote about Paul Ryan’s economic policies stating: “Ryan’s high-profile economic philosophy is the very same one that hurt, not helped, his forebears during the famine—and hurt them badly.”

Paul Ryan is not the only conservative politician in US who believes giving assistance to the poor is a negative thing. Some conservative commentators are using even harsher language as a tool for degrading America’s poor. Fox Business commentator, Todd Wilemon, recently did an interview for The Daily Show discussing the Affordable Care Act, and the negative effects that it will have on America’s health care system. Towards the end of the interview he makes the claim that many poor Americans have made the choice to not purchase health care, even though they “could afford it.” When The Daily Show correspondent, Assif Mandvi, challenges that assertion, Wilemon responds: “People like a free lunch. And I’ll be honest, if you’re poor just stop being poor.”

This language of blame placed on poor people for being poor is not a new concept. It has been recycled through history and can be seen in today’s economic policy of Neoliberalism. Neoliberals believe that it’s up to the individual to take care of their own personal well-being, and that the state shouldn’t have to. For example, Neoliberals believe that people should just “pull themselves up by their boot straps” out of poverty and that government assistance will only make them lazy. Neoliberals hide behind the language of “individual freedoms” to propagate this economic disparity.

There are many different reasons why people in the US live in poverty, and blaming them for it helps no one. It’s so important to understand the language used by the people in power in US. Understanding this language and the history behind it allows future generations to really understand the thinking and motivations of the US elite—perhaps making the decision to not be like Paul Ryan, and hopefully not repeat mistakes from the past.



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