You know what I’ll always remember about Paul Ryan, the retiring speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives?
This little (and possibly fictitious) anecdote Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, used to tell about a child living in poverty who got a free lunch at school, but wished his lunch came in a brown paper bag, because that would mean someone cared about him.
Children living at or below the poverty level qualify for free or reduced lunch at school, a federal program designed to ensure that children in this powerful and wealthy nation don’t starve.
But to Ryan, speaking in 2016 at the Conservative Political Action Conference, this was evidence of how flawed social safety net programs are: “The Left is making a big mistake here. What they’re offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul.”
After Ryan’s speech was reported, a lot of folks pointed out that really, it’s better to feed hungry kids than not. And that’s a fine point to make.
But what’s most noxious about this story is its underlying premise that the parents of children who qualify for free or reduced lunched don’t care about their kids, a presumption so offensive it makes me see red. Because it seems to me that parents who apply for free or reduced lunches, ensuring that their children can eat even when there’s no money for a nutritious home-packed lunch, are caring for their children in the best way that they can.
Reforming entitlements is one of Ryan’s most cherished political goals; most often, the reforms he proposes involve requiring Americans to pay more for less. And Ryan does not believe that work is done. Announcing his retirement this week, he said reform of the social safety net should remain a top priority, and credited himself for putting entitlement cuts on the board.
That entitlement cuts mean real pain for real people is something Ryan never seems to acknowledge. Hence his stories insinuating that parents living in poverty don’t care for their children.
It’s a constant, needling refrain that suggests people in poverty deserve to be there, that if they’d just get off drugs, stop living it up with fancy food or work up enough gumption to find a job, there’d be no problem. Pragmatists may protest that punitive measures like drug-testing welfare recipients or requiring parents who care for small children to perform volunteer aren’t practical or cost-effective. But the underlying premise — that folks who live in poverty aren’t quite like those of us who don’t — too often goes unquestioned. That offers us an excuse to look past the complicated, structural roots of poverty, and past real solutions in favor of cheap-shot fixes.
Last month, a Michigan lawmaker introduced a bill that would require recipients of Medicaid to work 30 hours a week (nearly half of those enrolled in the Healthy Michigan expansion do work, and some portion of the remainder are stay-at-home parents, students, or living with chronic illness), enabled by a change to Medicaid rules made by President Donald Trump’s administration. Four years ago, the Legislature passed, and Gov. Rick Snyder signed, a law that would require welfare recipients to submit to suspicion-based drug testing. (None of the recipients tested positive.)
Proposals to require beneficiaries of the social-safety net to perform volunteer work or to stop folks on food stamps from buying seafood pop up with alarming regularity.
Poverty is not a moral failing. But the presumption that it is drives bad policy. Ryan is leaving Congress, but the conditions he helped to create aren’t likely to change.
Nancy Kaffer is a columnist and member of the Detroit Free Press editorial board. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.