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How Paul Ryan Is Bringing the Poverty Nightmare of Charles Dickens' Novels to America

Inside Ryan's politics of gruel.

“Please sir, I want some more…” it’s one of the most poignant pleas in literature, recognizable by generations of people around the world as the words spoken by a young and hungry Oliver Twist in Dickens’ famous novel of the same name. The story is about an orphan who endures a miserable existence in a workhouse and then placed with an undertaker. The story was Dickens’ protest against the English Poor Law of 1834, which dictated that the poor could no longer receive charity while residing in their homes, to receive any public charity or service, they would now have to enter a workhouse.

I couldn’t help thinking about young Oliver Twist as I watched Paul Ryan twisting himself like a pretzel in trying to manage two essentially incompatible things: adhere to conservative economic dogma while exhibiting compassion for the poor. For Republicans with national ambitions the last few years have been tough. Despite their best efforts even low information voters are losing belief in ‘trickle down’ economics. That belief may have sustained people in the Reagan, Bush and Clinton years – despite ample evidence to the contrary – but the impact of the Great Recession combined with the response to the Occupy Movement has effectively destroyed any illusion the wealthy intend to allow their wealth to trickle down to the rest of us.

Unfortunately, conservative ideology is resistant to reality or facts so the economic proscriptions have failed to change with the times. Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio among others continue to assert the best way to reduce poverty is by giving more tax cuts to the rich. The belief that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ is at the heart of modern-day conservatism and of the continuing debate about the role of government in meeting the basic needs of its people.

Last week also saw the convergence a few events – the one year anniversary of the GOP “Autopsy” analyzing the reasons why Republicans failed to win the national election in 2012; St. Patrick’s Day and the attempt by Republicans to capitalize on Obama’s recently announced “Brother’s Keepers Initiative” by exhibiting their support for young black men. It provided opportunities for great political commentary, my favorite –  Timothy Egan’s non-subtle reminder of the history of Ryan’s Irish ancestors and the role of the British aristocracy in facilitating the Great Famine that cost millions of Irish lives:

A great debate raged in London: Would it be wrong to feed the starving Irish with free food, thereby setting up a “culture of dependency”? Certainly England’s man in charge of easing the famine, Sir Charles Trevelyan, thought so. “Dependence on charity,” he declared, “is not to be made an agreeable mode of life.”

And there I ran into Paul Ryan. His great-great-grandfather had fled to America. But the Republican congressman was very much in evidence, wagging his finger at the famished. His oft-stated “culture of dependency” is a safety net that becomes a lazy-day hammock. But it was also England’s excuse for lethal negligence.

There is no comparison, of course, between the de facto genocide that resulted from British policy, and conservative criticism of modern American poverty programs.

But you can’t help noticing the deep historic irony that finds a Tea Party favorite and descendant of famine Irish using the same language that English Tories used to justify indifference to an epic tragedy.

That critique was followed by a  brutal take-down by Paul Krugman where he called Ryan out for using the dog-whistle of racial stereotypes in blaming high unemployment on a culture of not working in “inner cities”:

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