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


“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”:

So it’s comical, in a way, to see Mr. Ryan trying to explain away some recent remarks in which he attributed persistent poverty to a “culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working.” He was, he says, simply being “inarticulate.” How could anyone suggest that it was a racial dog-whistle?

He said what he said because that’s the kind of thing conservatives say to each other all the time. And why do they say such things? Because American conservatism is still, after all these years, largely driven by claims that liberals are taking away your hard-earned money and giving it to Those People.

Some might accuse me of piling on – I say, if he can dish it, he should be able to take it.

The Past is Present

The stratified English class structure of the last century is reflected in the popular PBS series, Downton Abbey. The highest social class belonged to the Lord and Lady Granthams, aristocrats who did not have to work for a living – they lived on the income of their estates and investments. Today they’re known as the “Makers”, financiers, business execs and corporate moguls who derive their wealth thru managing corporate empires and investments. The English middle class of that era was looked down on by the rich for having to work, so to make themselves feel better about it, they embraced their burden and raised work to a moral virtue – sound familiar? Today, we have members of Congress asserting that those who don’t work, don’t deserve to eat. The moral value attached to work, along with middle class insecurity about its own standing and legitimacy, led English society to subject the poor to cruel and dehumanizing treatment. Having attained middle class status, many members were anxious to differentiate themselves from the lower classes – one way to do so was to stigmatize them as indolent freeloaders – todays 47% aka the “Takers”. Victorian society interpreted economic success as a sign of moral virtue – that God favored the successful person’s efforts, and, so interpreted poverty as a sign of God’s judgment based on weakness of the poor person.

The sentiment behind the Poor Law of 1834 reflected these beliefs. The law allowed the poor to receive public assistance only if they lived and worked in established workhouses. Workhouses were deliberately made to be as miserable as possible to deter the poor from relying on public assistance. The philosophy was that the miserable conditions would prevent able-bodied paupers from being lazy and idle bums. The number of people who passed thru British workhouses is staggering – in the 100 years of their operation, more than 14 million people were compelled to turn to the workhouse for food, shelter, clothing and health care.

I’ve often wondered if whites who are descendants of European immigrants remember the contempt in which many of their ancestors were held in their native countries that led them to flee; or the discriminatory treatment they received when they arrived in the U.S. Anti-immigrant sentiment was as virulent against southern Europeans, Irish and Jews during the late 19th and early 20th centuries as it is towards Hispanics and other brown people today.

Recently, I came across an amazing documentary that featured famous Brits learning about their ancestors experiences with the workhouse. I share some clips that have particular resonance to today’s conversation about the reasons for persistent poverty and treatment of the poor.

British actor Brian Cox was researching the history of his great-grandfather Patrick McCann, an Irish laborer forced to seek work in Glasgow, Scotland. A widower with a small boy to support, he suffered from chronic bronchitis and after a workplace injury left him unemployed was forced to turn to the workhouse.

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Brian Cox’s great-grandfather was physically disabled, but according to the standards of the time, he was considered one of the undeserving poor. Because of his health issues he had difficulty sustaining steady employment which led to the state labeling him a “malingerer”, someone unwilling to work.

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Paul Ryan’s district includes the city of Racine where high unemployment has been a chronic problem for decades. The problem has only worsen since the Great Recession. In May, 2013 unemployment in Racine was 11.6%, the second-highest rate in the state. Median income for residents of the City of Racine is substantially lower than that of county or state residents. An analysis of income by race and ethnicity shows that white residents have twice the median income than black residents.

No state comes close to Wisconsin in imprisoning black men. There’s a direct relationship between Wisconsin’s propensity for imprisoning black men and their inability to get work, but you won’t hear Paul Ryan acknowledge that. A recent report found that 12.8%, or 1 in 8 of African-American working age men, were incarcerated. That rate is 32% higher than the second worst state, Oklahoma, and nearly double the national average of 6.7% (or 1 in 15). The report, aptly titled: Wisconsin’s Mass Incarceration of African-American Males: Workforce Challenges for 2013 found the following:

Among the most critical workforce issues facing Wisconsin are governmental policies and practices leading to mass incarceration of African-Americans men and suspensions of driving privileges to low-income
adults.. . . Particularly affected were African-American men, with the 2010 U.S. Census showing Wisconsin having the highest black male incarceration rate in the nation. In Milwaukee County over half of African-American men in their 30s have served time in state prison. . . . Prison time is the most serious barrier to employment, making ex-offender populations the most difficult to place and sustain in full-time employment. When DOT driver’s licensing history is also considered, transportation barriers make successful labor force attachment even less likely. Yet, most of the recent state policy discussions about preparing the Wisconsin workforce and debates over redistribution of government job training dollars have largely ignored African-American men and relegated ex-offender populations to a minor (if not invisible) place in Wisconsin’s labor force.

Almost a quarter of Racine households had incomes at or below poverty levels in 2012, and 40 percent of children under age 18 were in poverty. “The root causes are jobs and education,” according to Racine Mayor John Dickert. Those numbers leap for families where women are the sole source of income. According to 2012 estimates, 52% of families with a female head of house are in poverty in Racine.

In the workhouse system, poor people who died while an inmate (yes, that’s what they called them) and whose families could not afford to bury them would have their bodies consigned for dissection for medical research – repayment for the ‘crime of pauperism’. Wonder how long it will take for Paul Ryan or some other Tea Partier to propose a similar measure – you can get welfare benefits if you’re willing to leave your body to science – a new form of debt collateral? Compassionate conservatism has been replaced with Dickensian indifference.

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