At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference yesterday, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) told a story intended to illustrate the evils of free school lunches for poor children:
“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.” Now, there are a couple obvious problems with Ryan's worldview.
The first is the implication that a kid without a brown-paper bag lunch doesn't have anyone who cares for him. But parents too poor to feed their children can still care about them. Money and affection are not the same thing.
Second, taking away a poor kid's lunch doesn't do anything to fill his soul or ensure he has a loving family. It just leaves her hungry and hurts her ability to learn, making it harder for her to escape poverty. As MSNBC's Ned Resnikoff explains, Ryan's anecdote accidentally makes the case for a guaranteed minimum income, rather than for the let-them-eat-cake policies Ryan prefers.
So, it wasn't the most successful anecdote you'll ever encounter. But the fun's just getting started: As it turns out, the story isn't true. Not the way Ryan told it, anyway.
The kid in question never spoke to Eloise Anderson, Secretary of Wisconsin's Department of Children and Families. Instead, his story was told in a book titled “The Invisible Thread,” by Laura Schroff. A spokesperson for Anderson says she misspoke when she re-told the story during a July 31, 2013 congressional hearing, and that she actually "was referring to a television interview which she had seen with Maurice Mazyck," the now-grown boy.
The actual story is quite different from the Ryan/Anderson version. It doesn't involve a child saying he didn't want a free lunch, or talking about a school lunch program in any way. In the actual story, Schroff encounters Mazyck, a panhandling 11-year-old whose mother was in jail, and offers to make him a lunch he can pick up on his way to school each day. Mazyck asks her to put the lunch in a paper bag "because when I see kids come to school with their lunch in a paper bag, that means someone cares about them."
So what does the now-grown Maurice Mazyck think about school lunch programs? The Washington Post notes "Schroff and Mazyck are partnering with a group called No Kid Hungry to help end childhood hunger in the United States. One key part of the program is connecting hungry kids with federal programs such as school lunches and food stamps."
Now, one last little wrinkle. One of Paul Ryan's early mentors was then-Congressman Jack Kemp, another supply-side alchemist with an undeserved reputation for intellectual prowess.
As the Republican Party's vice presidential nominee in 1996, Kemp repeatedly told the story of a conversation he supposedly had with a young child in a Chicago public housing project. "I was in Chicago at a public housing community. I asked a little boy what he wanted to be when he grew up," Kemp would say before expressing dismay at the child's conditional reply: "He said, 'Mr. Kemp, if I grow up...'" In fact, Kemp had never spoken to the child, whose story had appeared in a book.