U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan created quite a firestorm with the comments he made about poverty during an interview last week on a conservative radio talk show.

"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," said the Wisconsin Republican who is considered a strong contender for the 2016 presidential race.

Democrats wasted no time in pouncing on Ryan for that statement, accusing him of being a racist and trying to further the Republican agenda of catering to the rich at the expense of the poor.

"Let's be clear, when Mr. Ryan says 'inner city,' when he says 'culture' these are simply code words for what he really means: 'black,'" U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., told the Associated Press.

Vermont's own U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders also weighed in on the issue: "What they are trying to do is deflect attention away from income and wealth inequality. Attention away from the fact that the rich are doing extraordinarily well, and tell their supporters that the real problem in America is that children are getting too much help from the federal government, and that's the kind of mentality that we have got to fight back against."

Others are coming to Ryan's defense.

National Republican Chairman Reince Priebus said it was unfair to question Ryan's motives. He said people should consider the fact that Ryan was talking about poverty at all.


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Ryan's interest in the issue dates back to his time as a speechwriter working for former vice-presidential nominee Jack Kemp. He has spent much of his time since returning to Congress focused on the issue, touring poor precincts, giving speeches and producing a detailed, 205-page report on poverty, while indicating that he may introduce legislation to deal with the issue.

"He's talking about this issue because he's devoted a large part of his life to come up with, I would say, methods, policy, political approaches, all of the above, to help tackle poverty in this country," Priebus said.

Priebus said Ryan's efforts on poverty show that Republicans are trying to broaden their appeal and "venturing into areas that our party should venture into."

But doing so comes at a risk -- and Ryan has already proven that, said Mary Berry, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who served as the chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 1993 to 2004.

Republicans must be careful they "don't alienate their conservative white supporters," she told the AP. Meanwhile, Democrats are generally happy to pounce on any missteps.

"Democrats will jump all over them in the messaging game, no matter what they say," Berry said, "and they won't be given the benefit of the doubt -- that's politics."

Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen said Ryan's attackers worry that if Republicans follow his lead, it will expose the failure of the left's approach to poverty: "For decades, Republicans gave Democrats a near-monopoly in the fight against poverty. And like most monopolies, shielded from competition, the Democrat-led war on poverty failed. We have spent trillions of dollars on anti-poverty programs, and today the number of Americans living at or near poverty is higher than it was in 1964.

"Instead of defending their ideas, Democrats are trying to discredit Ryan, tar him as a bigot and drive him out of the debate. That is a telling admission of failure," Thiessen said.

He said Ryan is simply calling for a new approach, one that reduces poverty and dependence by unleashing opportunity.

Both sides make valid points. Unfortunately, in typical Washington fashion, everyone is so busy throwing out accusations and pointing out the flaws in each other's arguments that they fail to acknowledge the value of what each side brings to the table.

Democrats pride themselves on being champions of the downtrodden, offering support and government programs to help the less fortunate among us. They also are strong supporters of education. Republicans, meanwhile, take a more market-based approach. They believe that helping businesses succeed will lead to more job growth and economic opportunity for all.

Instead of fighting against each other as if these causes are antithetical to each other, Democrats and Republicans need to work together and find a way to meld their seemingly divergent approaches into one grand plan.

Eugene Robinson, another Washington Post columnist, highlights the acute shortage of meaningful work in depressed urban and rural communities. He said there was a time when young men who didn't plan to go to college could anticipate finding blue-collar work at "the plant" nearby. There they could have job security, enough income to keep a roof over a family's head, a pension when they retired. Their children, who would go to college, could expect lives of greater accomplishment and affluence.

"Direct government aid -- money, food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance and the like -- is not enough," Robinson wrote. "Poor people need employment that offers a brighter future for themselves and their children. Which means they need job skills. Which means they need education. Which means they need good schools and safe streets.

"I believe outcomes mostly depend on opportunities and that people are much less likely to engage in self-destructive behavior if they see opportunities that make sense to them," Robinson added.

There's something else Ryan said that has gotten lost in all of these accusations of racism. While it's no secret that Republicans favor less government and social welfare programs, Ryan rightly points out that instead of relying solely on a top-down government approach to fighting poverty, we need to put more emphasis on grassroots, community-based efforts.

"Everyone has got to get involved. So this is what we talk about when we talk about civil society," Ryan said. "If you're driving from the suburbs to the sports arena downtown by these blighted neighborhoods, you can't just say: 'I'm paying my taxes and government is going to fix that.' You need to get involved. You need to get involved yourself - whether through a good mentor program or some religious charity, whatever it is to make a difference. And that's how we help resuscitate our culture."

There's nothing racist or elitist about that.