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Wrong on All Levels

March 13th, 2014

About a week ago Paul Ryan made a speech at CPAC. He made the conservative case against school lunches, using the familiar theme that government assistance to those in need is an evil that is ruining America:

The left is making a big mistake here. What they’re offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul. The American people want more than that. This reminds me of a story I heard from Eloise Anderson. She serves in the cabinet of my buddy, Governor Scott Walker. She once met a young boy from a very poor family, and every day at school, he would get a free lunch from a government program. He told Eloise he didn’t want a free lunch. He wanted his own lunch, one in a brown-paper bag just like the other kids. He wanted one, he said, because he knew a kid with a brown-paper bag had someone who cared for him. This is what the left does not understand.

Ryan’s point is that the little boy was being cut off from his family by a state that was trying to make itself his ward. This is the same point being made to cut off most all support for the poor and needy, from Medicaid to assistance for military families. For example, conservatives bashed Obama for abusing the troops because he made sure that they had medical, education, and other financial aids: in effect, making them “victims dependent on social-welfare and medical services offered by the Democratic coalition.” Americans in need, according to conservatives, are trying valiantly to stand on their own two feet, and liberals are callously making them into dependent parasites of the state, addicted to federal funds—money, of course, which is hard-earned by patriotic conservative folk who don’t want their fairly-won cash doled out to indigent freeloaders.

The conservative point, however, is just as flawed as Ryan’s poignant rhetoric. As it turns out, the story is untrue. Not that Ryan didn’t hear that story, but the story he was told was false: Anderson never spoke to such a boy. Instead, it appears to have come from a book, An Invisible Thread, a non-fiction account of a sales executive and her relationship with an 11-year-old panhandler. In that book, the executive offers the boy money, or to make lunches for him, so he’ll have food to eat. The boy, far from simply being from a poor family as Anderson and Ryan told it, was on the street instead because his mother was in prison. Which is likely why he asked for the brown-paper-bag lunches, so he could appear to be a boy who had a loving mother at home instead of presenting the painful reality to his schoolmates.

So on that level, Ryan’s touching homily kind of backfires: the boy he was in fact referring to was not even getting school lunches, nor were the handouts he was getting somehow estranging him from a loving family.

However, let’s just ignore the factual faux pas and assume that the story were true. What would that mean? Would Ryan have had a point? After all, we often do look back on those brown paper bag lunches with nostalgia; I got them as well (PBJ or tuna salad sandwiches), and certainly enjoyed them.

Now, think about how, as an 11-year-old, you would have felt if all of a sudden your mother stopped making those lunches and instead you got school lunches. That never happened to me, at least not that I recall. However, considering honestly what I would have thought, I can confidently say that my reaction would have been rather simple: will I like these new lunches? Although I’d like to say that I would have thought considerately that school lunches would have saved my mother some work and my family the expense, I probably would not have thought beyond how it would have affected me.

But the last thing I would have thought was that it somehow would mean my mother cared about me less. Had someone suggested that to the 11-year-old me, I probably would have thought them both idiotic and insulting.

Certainly, no kid at school would have looked at any other kid and said, “Hah! Your mother doesn’t care for you!” for the simple reason that every kid would be getting the same lunch.

In fact, if a kid were to react to school lunches like Ryan claimed, I would be deeply concerned—not that school lunches were cutting his family ties, but rather because if this kid’s sense of familial love could be completely severed by the loss of a bagged lunch, this kid was probably receiving little or no love at all from his parents at home.

Think about it. The reason I would not have minded losing the bag lunch would have nothing to do with wanting to feel loved, because I got plenty of affection in other ways from my parents. Any kid who suddenly feels unloved because his mother no longer makes bag lunches either has a massive insecurity complex, or, more likely, just isn’t getting the attention he needs at home—in which case, school lunches have nothing to do with the problem.

In fact, if Ryan had any sense whatsoever about poor families, he would realize that a child from a truly poor family would be acutely aware of the shortage of money in his home, would see his parents working incredibly hard, and so would probably have three predictable reactions to free school lunches: (1) my family can’t afford much so this will help us out, (2) my mother works so hard, I’m glad this will give her less work to do, and (3) will I like these new lunches?

In fact, maybe the school lunches would mean that the kid gets a better home-cooked meal in the evening, and a little more attention from mom in the morning.

But hey, I’m of the left, so obviously I don’t understand such things nearly as much as Randian conservatives do.

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  1. kensensei
    March 14th, 2014 at 15:33 | #1

    “A full stomach and an empty soul?” That’s a stretch in “logic”, even for a conservative like Paul Ryan. Did that book from the public library give you knowledge, but an empty soul? What about the fire-fighter who saved your burning house? Would it have made any difference if you had put out the fire yourself?

    It’s the old empty argument that if one accepts assistance the government, it is a sign of dependence and weakness. In fact, the commons, as they’re often called, are there because we have paid in and contributed to them. They are “ours” because “we” provide them for ourselves–not the govt.

    The wealthy have no need for the commons, and, therefore, have found an excuse to get rid of them. Ryan’s argument is a thin veil to hide his real motive–to keep himself (and his wealthy constituents) in power and decimate the middle-class.


  2. Troy
    March 15th, 2014 at 03:53 | #2

    I wrote something earlier about this being the typical rightwing BS con job, but I guess I deleted it before posting so that’s good.

    Ryan is guilty here going for the cheap shots of looking for criticisms of the other guy “the left is making a big mistake here”, and not thinking much about what’s really wrong.

    Same goes for us, too, “the left” is trying to fix things, but turned out the fixes made things worse.


    but that’s only part of the story, since a stable household requires a stable paycheck or two.

    Statistics are squishy, but the NAACP says one out of 6 black men had been incarcerated as of 2001.


    Drug crime has produced a minority population in prison.

    Conservatives like to point to things they don’t like, like welfare, as causes for poverty.

    Instead of what they do like, like the departure of american industry to cheap-labor states and foreign countries.


    Things are pretty far gone here. “You’re wrong!” vs “No, you’re wrong!” isn’t going to solve anything, but that’s all we have on TV, and how we prefer to think, that the other guy is always wrong.

    (even if they are, the debate has to move to how do we fix things, not just criticizing the other side)

  3. Troy
    March 17th, 2014 at 23:53 | #3

    Krugman is good on this:


    “And since conservatives can’t bring themselves to acknowledge the reality of what’s happening to opportunity in America, they’re left with nothing but that old-time dog whistle. Mr. Ryan wasn’t being inarticulate — he said what he said because it’s all that he’s got.”


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