Wrong on All Levels
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.