Paul Ryan’s latest makeover is designed to fix his plutocratic image and rehabilitate his future political prospects. It is designed to counter claims that Republicans are indifferent to poverty and revive the image of Paul Ryan as a “serious thinker” who cares about policy, an image that was shattered in the 2012 campaign when many noticed his serial dishonesty and problems with math.
The self-rebranding is not going well, as EJ Dionne explains:
Ryan no longer refers to social programs as a “hammock” for the idle, but he still wants to cut them. And he cited Eloise Anderson, a Wisconsin state official, to tell a story in his CPAC speech — it got more attention than he now wishes — about “a young boy from a very poor family” who “would get a free lunch from a government program.”
The young man “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 didn’t understand that this was a made-up story. After reporting by the Wonkette blog and The Post’s Glenn Kessler, Anderson admitted that she had never spoken to the boy. She picked up the story from a TV interview. Worse, she then twisted a tale first told by supporters of government nutrition assistance that had absolutely nothing to do with school lunch programs.
But what’s most troubling here is that it did not occur to Ryan to check the story because it apparently didn’t occur to him that most kids on free lunch programs have parents who do care about them. They just can’t afford to put a nutritious lunch in a brown paper bag every day.
Paul Ryan has never let facts get in the way of his ideological agenda. Yet just as his attempt to twist the word “subsidiarity”, cherry-pick a couple of quotes from papal encyclicals, and name-drop St. Thomas Aquinas to defend exactly the same approach to government he advocated as a follower of Ayn Rand failed, so too has his “quiet” poverty tour (which kept getting leaked to the press, darn it all!) not produced a new Paul Ryan. At the present moment, all evidence indicates that he’s the same power-hungry, extreme ideologue obsessed with cutting essential government programs, pretending to be a serious, earnest policy wonk.
His new report on poverty has received even more negative attention than the fake story he told at CPAC. Analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities indicates:
The report substantially understates both the nation’s progress in reducing poverty over the past 50 years and the safety net’s impact today…. The report overstates both the marginal tax rates that most low-income families face and their impact…. The report criticizes Medicaid and health reform for discouraging work, but it ignores how health reform significantly reduces work disincentives for working-poor parents…. The report distorts research on the 1996 welfare law…. The report misrepresents data and research on “deep poverty.”… The report omits important research showing that Head Start has long-term positive impacts for children…. The report sometimes uses data to imply that a program isn’t working when the data likely means the program is serving a very disadvantaged population.”
It is no surprise that “several economists and social scientists (cited in the report) had reactions ranging from bemusement to anger at Ryan’s report, claiming that he either misunderstood or misrepresented their research.” Jonathan Chait explains why Ryan is likely distorting so many studies: the “scholarly literature is never going to show that his plans to impose massive cuts to the anti-poverty budget will help poor people.”
Finally, Paul Ryan recently made some comments that many on the left have charged as racist. Given the language that was used about “inner cities,” I understand why many are making this claim. But having followed Ryan’s career very closely for a number of years now, I have not seen any clear signs of racism. What I have seen, over and over again, is a universally myopic view of the poor that seems to persist to this day.
As Christians we can hope that Paul Ryan will experience a real conversion and abandon his strong opposition to large segments of Catholic social teaching. But as voters and citizens, prudence demands skepticism toward public officials who have been so deceptive and strongly opposed to the common good in the past. Concrete evidence is necessary before any trust should be placed in such figures.
Even from this point of view, we can still hold out hope that Paul Ryan’s ambition will force him to embrace some proposals that might actually help the poor. He must know that there will be a big backlash if he offers nothing constructive whatsoever. And if he does put forward constructive ideas (even entirely out of self-interest), they should be examined objectively and seriously considered by all people who are interested in reducing poverty. The status quo is unacceptable and new ideas are necessary to construct a better, more comprehensive approach.
If nothing else, we can hope that his discussion of poverty will lead to a greater amount of focus on the issue by the government and increased discussion of what can be done (in and out government) to reduce poverty.
But overall, Paul Ryan’s fake story, flawed report, and controversial comments confirm the unfortunate truth everyone should recognize: at a fundamental level, Paul Ryan remains Paul Ryan.