Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) speaks at CPAC on March 6, 2014.
Photo by Mark Peterson/Redux for MSNBC

Paul Ryan accidentally makes the case against means-testing

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UPDATED

Whatever the merits of Paul Ryan’s nascent anti-poverty crusade, no one can deny that its public relations wing has been doing some top-notch work. Ryan, savvy as he is, has spent months teasing the press with hints of his new plan for helping the needy. But the specific details of that plan—assuming they’ve even been worked out yet—remain a secret.

That didn’t stop Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, from dropping a few more clues during his Thursday morning remarks at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Although he stopped short of making any new policy proposals, he did end on an anecdote intended to show the difference between the left’s attitude toward the poor and his own.

[Eloise Anderson, the head of Wisconsin’s Department of Children and Families] once met a young boy from a poor family,” said Ryan. “And every day at school, he would get a free lunch from a government program. But 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.”

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Clearly, Ryan meant for the story (which was reportedly untrue; see below) to tug at some heart strings. But he also said the story illustrates that “people don’t just want a life of comfort; they want a life of dignity—of self-determination.” Receiving a free lunch from the government may improve a little boy’s material circumstances, but it robs him of his self-worth.

It’s a compelling anecdote, but it doesn’t quite do the work that Ryan seems to think it does. Instead of telling a story about the horror of welfare dependency, the Republican party’s chief budget guru may have accidentally given an argument against the conservative policy of means-testing welfare benefits.

When a welfare program is means-tested, that means people can only access benefits if they demonstrate need. In the case of the federal reduced school lunch program, that means a family of four must prove that its household income is no more than $43,568 per year [PDF] before their children can make use of the program. In other words, to get a free lunch for your child, you need to prove that your family is too poor to adequately feed him on its own.

It’s not hard to see how that could be a bit humiliating, for both the parent and the child. Means-testing for parents can involve a lengthy, convoluted, and occasionally invasive application process. For children, receiving free school lunch is a marker of difference, a signal to your classmates that you’re one of the poor kids.

There are two possible solutions to that problem. One is you can get rid of free school lunches entirely; but then you’re essentially taking food out of the hands of schoolchildren. Remember, the parents have already proven that they don’t have the resources to pay for their kids’ lunch every day. Taking a federal subsidy away from low-income families means they either have to let their children go hungry, scale back on other essential household purchases, or beg private institutions for charity.

The other solution to the problem of dignity is to eliminate means-testing, effectively turning free school lunch into a universal right. All of a sudden, parents don’t need to submit to a screening process and inspection from government caseworkers. And poor children who eat free meals are no longer marked by the stigma of poverty, because they’re simply taking advantage of the same service that all of their classmates can access.

That’s exactly what the New York City Coalition Against Hungry proposes doing in its Food Secure NYC plan [PDF]. And while the principle of universal, guaranteed benefits may sound like a far-left fantasy when applied to school lunches, it’s common sense when applied to some of the country’s most successful safety net programs. There’s a reason why conservatives rarely bemoan the “dependency” of the elderly on Medicare and Social Security. Both programs are open to any citizen who reaches a certain age, and rarely is anyone publicly shamed for taking advantage of one of them.

Universal entitlements have even been proposed as a conservative alternative to means-tested programs, on occasion. No less a free marketeer than Milton Friedman liked the idea of a negative income tax, which would function as a sort of guaranteed minimum income. If all Americans were entitled to a certain amount of money per year, regardless of their financial status, then you eliminate other welfare programs and thereby slim down the vast bureaucracy currently charged with means-testing welfare applicants.

Tellingly, that doesn’t seem to be the direction Ryan and his allies are headed in. If anything, Republicans seem to want to make the welfare application process even more bureaucratic and invasive. Why else would Republicans in the House propose that all food stamp recipients be forced to take a drug test? What does that accomplish besides further injuring the dignity of those who Ryan says he wants to help?

UPDATE: It turns out that there’s even less to Ryan’s anecdote than meets the eye. Eloise Anderson did indeed relate this story to Ryan during a 2013 congressional hearing, but it appears that she never actually spoke to “young boy from a poor family,” as she originally claimed. Instead, she borrowed the story from a book she had read, according to The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler. Moreover, the story as related in the book includes no reference whatsoever to the free school lunch program.

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We certainly don’t try to play gotcha. But this is a different order of magnitude,” writes Kessler. “Anderson, in congressional testimony, represented that she spoke to this child—and then ripped the tale out of its original context.”

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CPAC and Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan accidentally makes the case against means-testing

Updated