Let Them Eat Dignity
Representative Paul Ryan
A few days ago, Paul Ryan got caught repeating a little fib in his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. It was of a not-uncommon type, in which a vivid anecdote somebody hears from somewhere gets told and retold in a game of political telephone in which the facts get mangled and the story from elsewhere becomes something the speaker claims happened to her. We can forgive Ryan for repeating it, since the falsehood didn't originate with him. But the real power of the story lies in its revelation of the cruelty that underlies the way contemporary American conservatives look at the poor, and the wispy veil they try to pull over that cruelty in the hopes we won't see it for what it is.
To start, here's the story Ryan told, about Eloise Anderson, who directs the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families:
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.
As the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler explained, though Anderson indeed told this story at a congressional hearing, it actually didn't happen to her, but came from a book (which she later admitted). More important, she changed the story to make it more closely fit conservative ideology; in real life, the child in question wasn't getting a lunch from the government, but from a rich lady he met; and more important, it wasn't that he didn't want a free lunch, he just wanted his free lunch in a paper bag so the other kids wouldn't know he was getting help. That's an old story about poverty and shame—a relationship, by the way, that conservatives work hard to maintain.
But here's the part of Ryan's speech that really matters: "The left is making a mistake here," he said. "What they're offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul." And later: "People don't just want a life of comfort. They want a life of dignity." Ah yes, the "life of comfort" you get when you are able to eat not one, not two, but as many as three meals a day! Talk about easy street.
Whenever conservatives start throwing around ideas like "dignity" and talking about the contents of people's souls, watch out. Because it almost always means that what they're proposing is to make the lives of the vulnerable a little tougher and a little more deprived. This'll hurt you more than it hurts them.
And that is indeed what Ryan proposes. The last budget plan he released, like those before it, sought to cut hundreds of billions of dollars from Medicaid, food stamps, and other programs that provide assistance to the poor—because as Ryan once said, "we don't want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives."
I suspect conservatives talk this way as much for their own benefit—for the maintenance of their souls, if you will—as for the poor people they're ostensibly addressing. Almost all of us, with the exception of a few true-believing Ayn Rand cultists, believe that we have obligations to one another, no matter how selfish we might be on most days. If you're literally taking food from the mouths of hungry children, you have to justify it somehow, to assure yourself that you're still a moral person. So you tell yourself that you're doing it to help them. You're giving them something more valuable than food, because you care so deeply about them. When that six-year-old gets that grumble in her stomach, you can tell her what she's feeling is the growing pains of her soul, as it swells with its newfound dignity.
The souls of the wealthy, on the other hand, are apparently so healthy and strong they can withstand the indignity of government help. Special tax treatment for investment income? The mortgage interest deduction? Cuts to upper-income tax rates? The rich are truly blessed with souls so resilient that they remain intact even in the face of such injuries of government largesse.
But that's the way it is with everything. Conservatives are not worried that hedge-fund managers will be slowly sapped of their will to work when their income is taxed at an absurd 15 percent rate because of the carried interest loophole, leaving the rest of us to pick up their slack. When they address that question, there is no talk of dignity. Only when it comes time to cut food stamps or kick people off of the first health insurance they've ever had (as Ryan also wants to do, by eliminating the Affordable Care Act's expansion of Medicaid) do conservatives turn so philosophical, casting their gaze beyond the trivialities of daily existence, like food, and toward such higher considerations.
If you were being unkind, you might say that when it comes to poor people's dignity, the right has mostly been concerned of late in seeing that they have as little as possible, by advocating things like forcing people to take drug tests before getting welfare benefits. Perhaps they believe that a combination of hunger and humiliation will be just the encouragement those lazy poor need to take a firm hold of their bootstraps and pull. True, that expression originally meant doing something that is physically impossible—you can tug on your bootstraps all you like, but it won't pull you out of a hole. You will be carried aloft by your soul, though, so long as it isn't sullied by safety net programs.
This, in the end, is the essence of conservative thought on these issues. Better a child should go hungry than get a free lunch. Better a poor person should have no health insurance at all than get insurance from the government. Their suffering may multiply, but they'll still have their dignity. If only you could eat it.
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