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An Unlucky Irishman?

Rep. Paul Ryan's story at CPAC about a boy who wanted a brown-bag lunch turned out to be untrue.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

“The left is making a big mistake here. What they’re offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul. The American people want more than that. This reminds me of a story I heard from Eloise Anderson. She serves in the cabinet of my buddy, Governor Scott Walker. 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.” Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, March 6, 2014

There’s one problem with Paul Ryan’s story: It’s not true.

It turns out Eloise Anderson never met a boy who wanted lunch in a brown-paper bag rather than a free school meal. Anderson appropriated the story from a book that features an 11-year-old homeless boy who asked a benefactor for a brown-paper bag. The story took place about 25 years ago, and the book does not discuss school lunch programs.

Perhaps Paul Ryan is just unlucky, repeating an unverified story that seemed too good to check out. Or perhaps the story seemed to be such a tight fit with Ryan’s ideology that he saw no need to check it out.

(Part of that ideology is Ryan’s apparent assumption that parents who can’t afford to pack a lunch for their children — and therefore rely on school lunch programs — don’t care for those children.)

Ryan’s poor luck continued last week when he responded to a question from radio talk-show host Bill Bennett about the so-called “fatherless problem.” Ryan’s response: "We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work. There is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with."

Critics quickly pounced on Ryan. Representative Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, called his “comments about ‘inner city’ poverty… a thinly veiled racial attack.” Lee continued, “when Mr. Ryan says ‘inner city,’ when he says ‘culture,’ these are simply code words for what he really means: ‘black.’”

Ryan defended himself by labeling his remarks “inarticulate.”

Again, unlucky? Or an instance of ideology trumping articulateness?

The day after St. Patrick’s Day seems a fortuitous time to ask these questions, for Ryan is an Irishman who claims descent “from Irish peasants [who] came over during the potato famine,” but whose formulaic descriptions of the supposed ill-effect of government programs in America to aid the poor resemble British justifications for not helping the starving Irish during the famine years.

As vice-presidential candidate in 2012, running with Mitt (47 percent Romney), Ryan referred to the “debilitating culture of dependency, wrecking families and communities,” caused by “centralized, bureaucratic, top-down anti-poverty programs.” Sir Charles Trevelyan, Britain’s officer in charge of easing hunger in Ireland, said at the depth of the famine, “Dependence on charity is not to be made an agreeable mode of life.”

Irish historian John Kelly, author of the The Graves are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People, noted Ryan’s channeling of British attitudes towards the victims of the famine — that public assistance deprived the poor of the incentive to change behaviors that made them poor. “Ryan’s high-profile economic philosophy,” he wrote, “is the very same one that hurt, not helped, his forebears during the famine — and hurt them badly.”

Like the British governors of Ireland in the mid-19th century, Ryan possesses a cramped and distorted view of human nature. British officials in the 1840s derived their ideas from an evangelical sect called Moralists, while Ryan, as a college student, imbibed his from Ayn Rand’s philosophical justifications of unbridled and unregulated capitalism. He’s since broken with Rand because of her atheism, not because of her exaltation of self-interest as a virtue.

The point is not to compare the de facto genocide of British policy in 19th-century Ireland with conservative critiques of anti-poverty programs in America today. But it is to say that those who cavalierly refer to a “culture of dependency,” then and now, believe the poor deserve their fate, that their fate derives from character flaws exacerbated by public assistance.

It’s this belief — that the poor deserve their fate — that led Ryan to give credence to a story that was not true and to chastise the inner-city poor in words that sound too much like a racial attack.

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