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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014

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No brown bag lunch = empty soul? Paul Ryan believes so.
No brown bag lunch = empty soul? Paul Ryan believes so. (Photo:

Paul Ryan and the brown bag lie

The question my students most often ask me is, "Why do you give so much work?"

The second most often-asked question is, "Got any food?"

Before this last weekend I had never thought to sit and quantify the questions my students ask me. But Paul Ryan made me do it.

Wisconsin GOP Congressman Ryan spoke Thursday at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual meeting of conservative activists that serves as a pilgrimage for any professional conservative with a book or a campaign to sell. You have probably heard that a key anecdote from Ryan's speech turned out to be plagiarized, not by Ryan, but by Ryan's source – Eloise Anderson, Secretary of Wisconsin's Department of Children and Families, an appointee of Gov. Scott Walker.

Here's what Ryan said Thursday, according to the Washington Post's "Fact Checker" Glenn Kessler:

(Anderson) 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.

Ryan told the story to suggest that "the left," in his words, wanted to offer hungry children not a full stomach but "an empty soul." A free lunch at school, Ryan argued, robs children of the love, acceptance and comfort that only a family, via a home-packed lunch, can provide.

I started thinking about my students' questions of me because I read Kessler's column Friday morning before I left for school, and literally within a few minutes of the start of school that morning, one of my kids did in fact ask me if I had any food. The question came back repeatedly throughout the day.

Some of this I'm sure is standard adolescent rapaciousness; I was fed well in my middle-class home when I was an teenager, but I was very good at sniffing out food from teachers and classmates or sneaking some of those little blueberry muffin things when I worked my shifts at Burger King.

But my school also has a near 90 percent free and reduced lunch rate, meaning the vast majority of kids walking the halls are from families with incomes below, at, or just above the poverty line – and many of the kids are, in fact, hungry when they're asking me for food.

But back to Paul Ryan. As it turns out, the story Anderson told Ryan (during testimony before Congress!) was lifted from a book by Laura Schroff, and the boy who wanted a brown bag was named Maurice Mazyck. Anderson's spokesperson gave Kessler a statement claiming the secretary "misspoke" in her testimony, but Kessler couldn't verify the supposedly corrected version of Anderson's story, either.

More importantly, I think, is that Schroff and Mazyck are busy living the exact opposite of what Ryan was trying to say by appropriating their anecdote. The two are, according to a news release Kessler links to, working with No Kid Hungry to provide healthy meals to hungry children. Indeed, a key part of No Kid Hungry's mission is making sure that families can access food stampsfree school lunches and other soul-sucking methods of getting food to hungry kids.

Ryan's schtick at CPAC, claiming that government help for those in need crushes spirits and steals souls, is a pretty common trope among those on the right eager to curb government spending primarily by cutting programs for the poor. I think that conservatives want to say they care – they just care about your existential well-being much more than they care about whether you go to bed hungry or, for that matter, have a bed or even a home.

"I want you to have love and self respect more than I want you to have a mock chicken leg," they say. You can hear the "It hurts me as much as it hurts you" lurking just under the surface there, and it's no more a consolation from someone like Ryan than it was from your dad before he delivered a spanking.

I think Ryan's schtick would seem more genuine if there were actual solutions behind his rhetoric. In the CPAC speech, Ryan said – rightly, I think – that a growing economy is good for poor families. The trouble is his ideas, like like cutting Medicare or food stamps or Head Start or other programs that primarily help the poor, do the opposite of grow the economy.

It's bad enough that Ryan's recent report on 50 years of America's "War on Poverty" abuses the data; it also misrepresents the reality of social mobility in America and the effects of government programs. Food stamps, for example, have ( nearly double) the benefits to the wider economy than their cost. Recent research suggests that the best anti-poverty program may well be just giving people money, no strings attached. The Earned Income Tax Credit does exactly that to great success for America's poor – and that is a program Ryan has a history of trying to slash.

Ryan said at CPAC that "the left just doesn’t understand" the value of knowing someone cares about them, with his purloined tale of the brown bag. "People don’t just want a life of comfort," Ryan said, "they want a life of dignity – of self-determination."

When my students ask if I have any chips or candy or, sometimes, fruit, they're not asking for a life of comfort. They're not handing me their dignity in exchange for Cheetos, their self-determination for an apple. They don't want a speech. They want a meal. They're hungry.

Paul Ryan and his party would rather they stay that way. For their "soul."


UnionYes | March 11, 2014 at 11:53 p.m. (report)

The point is that he both plagiarized and lied. Hunger trumps dignity any day. It's good to recognize a lie and even better to hold people accountable for their lies. Please stay on topic with your replies. Political grandstanding is just disgusting. Lyin' Ryan - It's not just a nickname, it's a career.

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AndrewJ | March 11, 2014 at 8:51 a.m. (report)

36464 This is just riveting stuff. Sigh.

The President of the United States of America has been getting up in front of the people of this nation for 5 consecutive years and lying to their face regarding his plan for health care, what it will mean for them, and who, ultimately, will benefit from the legislation. But instead of focusing on the big guy, the one actually in charge, you goofs are chasing down anecdotal quotes from stump speeches at conferences. Earlier this week you had Dan Bice over at the Journal playing keystone cop and tracking down people who appeared in stock online imagery used in a Republican TV ad. Is this really what you've come to? Because your ideas and philosophy have been put on full display as an unmitigated failure, you're going to try and disprove the other side by chasing ghosts? OK. Good luck with that.

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emills81 | March 10, 2014 at 3:59 p.m. (report)

"The best anti poverty program is just giving people money." Sounds great to me, lets start with giving me the money I earned, instead of taking it in taxes.

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