"When I was waiting tables, washing dishes, or mowing lawns for money, I never thought of myself as stuck in some station in life," Congressman Ryan went on. "I was on my own path, my own journey, an American journey, where I could think for myself, decide for myself, define happiness for myself. That is what we do in this country. That is the American dream."
That is the American fantasy. In the American reality, geography is largely destiny. If Ryan didn't feel "stuck in some station in life," he should consider counting his blessings instead of patting himself on his back.
He grew up on Garfield Avenue in Janesville. In 1970, the year he was born, a scant 4 percent of the town's families were living in poverty. When he was ten, poverty was still 4 percent. When he was 20, the poverty rate had risen, but only to 6 percent. Ryan's family and neighbors also never had to struggle with the host of problems stemming from racial discrimination; the town was 99 percent white.
But what if instead of Garfield Avenue in Janesville, Ryan had grown up on Garfield Boulevard in Chicago? Say, on the three-mile stretch from Cottage Grove to Ashland. The boulevard runs through three Chicago communities—Washington Park, Englewood, and West Englewood. Since the early 1970s, those neighborhoods have been 99 percent African-American. The poverty rate has usually been above 30 percent; in Washington Park in 1990, it was 57 percent. Crime has been rampant, fires common, unemployment consistently high.
On Garfield Boulevard, would Ryan still have been able to define happiness for himself? Would he still have felt a passenger on the great American journey?
Ryan also talked last night of the support he got from his parents. His dad, a lawyer, died when Ryan was 16, but Ryan recalled his "gentle presence" and guidance before that: "My dad used to say to me, 'Son—you have a choice. You can be part of the problem, or you can be part of the solution.''' Ryan's mother was a model of industriousness, he told the delegates. "She got on a bus every weekday for years, and rode 40 miles each morning to Madison. She earned a new degree and learned new skills to start her small business....It made our family proud. And to this day, my mom is my role model."
What if Ryan hadn't had that family support and those role models? Urban poverty is a package deal; it's not merely a lack of money. Children born into it often grow up amid chaos, and many of the most influential role models aren't positive.
The New York Times ran a front-page profile yesterday of DeAndre McCullough, the 35-year-old who died of a drug overdose a month ago in Baltimore. McCullough had been the protagonist of David Simon's 1997 book The Corner, about drug dealing in Baltimore. Both of McCullough's parents had been drug addicts, his neighborhood was immersed in dope fiends, and in his teens McCullough had become an addict himself. He shook his addiction on occasion, but it had ultimately prevailed.
“What was the trigger that sent him back to addiction?” Simon wondered in yesterday's story. “It’s the biggest question in the world. But the journey from one America to the other is epic. Once you’ve become a citizen of one, it’s really hard to find citizenship in the other.”
Simon understands that there are two Americas because he's seen them. African-Americans understand it because many of them have lived in the lesser America. From Ryan's vantage point and that of most Republicans, we are all simply captains of our ships.