After over-composing to make deadline yesterday, I am enjoying my first semi-day off in weeks. While I propagate a culture of laziness and entitlement, how about we check in with a guy who knows all about that stuff from the perspective of righteous election? I refer of course to Paul Ryan, who recently complained that poverty is largely due to people in the inner cities “not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” In case this blog post falls into a time machine set for 1954, “inner cities” is futurespeak for “people who are not white.” We need to stop spending money to help them, or this poverty thing might spread to another demographic.
The thing about poor people is that they don’t even want to make money, at least not by working; otherwise they wouldn’t be poor. It’s a failure of culture, which is lucky, since that costs much less money to fix than than a failure of postindustrial economy. Medicaid and food stamps require budget lines, whereas a plan to return our inner cities to two-parent families and a “culture of work” calls for almost no money or even concrete action. Poor people would be better off if they just thought like Ryan, who values work so much that he would rather see children go hungry than fail to appreciate it.
He’s also willing to lie. At the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, Ryan told the story of a young boy who said he didn’t want free school lunch. He wanted to come to school with a brown paper bag, because that would mean somebody cared about him enough to pack him a lunch. It turns out that anecdote comes from a 2011 book called The Invisible Thread by Laura Schroff. It was originally about an 11 year-old homeless boy, who said he would rather Schroff give him a bag lunch than money to buy lunch every week, because that would mean someone cared for him.
Notice that in Ryan’s version of the anecdote, the kid doesn’t get lunch at all. If he can’t have loving parents who can afford to feed him, he’d rather not eat. Ryan’s complaint that “we are offering people a full stomach and an empty soul” implies a false alternative in which “culture” somehow guarantees that kids get lunch and spiritual fulfillment. His real policy alternative, however, is to take away the lunch and hope the soul fills up on its own.
Maybe the central problem in the debate over school lunches is whether kids get to eat, not whether they value the culture of work. They’re kids, and blaming poor kids’ problems on their parents’ indolence only seems like a solution to a roomful of political activists who have just hit the buffet. Ryan is a consistently dishonest public speaker, and his lies tend to either A) aggrandize himself or B) excuse comfortable people from basic obligations of compassion.
Now is a great time for hucksters to convince people with educations, houses and food that we don’t have to help anyone who doesn’t have those things. You can see it in the resurgence of Ryan’s ideological favorite, Ayn Rand, and you can see it in the tide of politicians who insist that widespread poverty is a moral indictment of the poor rather than the rich. These arguments are not succeeding because they make sense. They’re succeeding because we want to believe them.
Ryan says a made-up kid told the secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families that he wants someone to care about him. “His parents should” is not the solution to that problem. Claiming that we shouldn’t buy him lunch because it won’t fill the cultural emptiness inside him is like saying you’re not going to celebrate your kid’s birthday this year because it won’t help him get into college. That’s a logical fallacy, and you just don’t want to pay for a cake.