Paul Ryan: Full Stomach, Empty Soul

5665752854_64a325c20b_z (1)Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc) didn’t major in psychology, so maybe that’s why he turned Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs on its head when he pontificated at the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 6 about the U.S. providing food for hungry children:

The left is making a big mistake here. What they’re offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul…She [Eloise Anderson, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families] 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.

Ryan was giving his opinion on the school hot lunch program and food stamps (the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, SNAP), proving once again that conservative Republicans are masters at trivializing poor people’s needs. Even if those poor people are children, who can’t possibly work their way out of poverty.

In fact, 72 percent of households that benefit from the SNAP program include children, and 2.2 million children are lifted out of poverty by governmental assistance programs such as SNAP. The National School Lunch Program benefits 3.1 million children [PDF] who might otherwise have gone hungry with a half day of school still ahead of them. And many of the children who receive lunch at school rely on this as the only meal they know will be served everyday. Soul-crushing? More like life-saving.

Meanwhile, members of the U.S. Congress such as Ryan are being dealt their own soul-crushing blows, since they, too, benefit from a nutritional assistance program.

The nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, which gathers data to make government more transparent, discovered last June that the House spent about $2 million in taxpayer dollars on coffee and catered food for guests. At $95,000, Republican Kevin McCarthy of California spent the most (how demoralizing for him!), including $4,000 on bottled water alone.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), in a September 2013 speech before the House in favor of food stamps, pointed how how much Congressmembers spent on food while abroad:

One member was given $127.41 a day for food on his trip to Argentina. He probably had a fair amount of steak. Another member was given $3,588 for food and lodging during a six-day trip to Russia. He probably drank a fair amount of vodka and probably even had some caviar. That particular member has 21,000 food-stamp recipients in his district. One of those people who is on food stamps could live a year on what this Congressman spent on food and lodging for six days. Another 20 members made a trip to Dublin, Ireland. They got $166 a day for food. These members didn’t pay a dime. They received almost $200 for a single meal only for themselves. Yet, for them the idea of helping fellow Americans spend less than $5 a day makes their skin crawl.

Ryan’s skin not only crawls at the idea of providing children one reliable meal a day, but believes that it will take the dignity away from these children. Because all children with empty stomachs care about is their dignity, right?

Not to mention that the child Ryan referred to at CPAC never actually met Eloise Anderson. The boy was actually an 11-year-old panhandling in New York City who Laura Schoff met and wrote about in her memoir An Invisible ThreadSchoff offered to give him lunch money, but the boy said he’d prefer her to make him a lunch in a brown paper bag. As Schoff told the Huffington Post,

I want people to think about what they can do to make the world a kinder world. I don’t care about Republicans and Democrats. But we are talking about children that need to be fed. Cutting school lunch programs doesn’t accomplish that.


Photo courtesy of Flickr user DC Central Kitchen licensed under Creative Commons 2.o

rsz_msLindsey O’Brien is currently studying journalism at Ohio University and interning at Ms. Follow her on Twitter.


  1. Interesting. Based what you selected to quote I see nothing indicating a conservative trying to take food away for a child. It sounds to me like the desire is to add significance by filling the soul in some manner as well as feeding the body. We all need significance whether child or adult, conservative or liberal. I could take the same quote provided and spin it, because that is exactly what you have done, to interpret that we should provide more faith based channels to funnel food more effectively, read more food for less dollars as that is what happens.
    Why not spend your efforts to demand that these Senators, Representatives AND the President reduce wasteful spending, just as you indicated (but without the devicive spin) while increasing funding for school lunches, for instance. These children do not need us to divide but to come together with solutions for today and, maybe more importantly, for the long term. How about guaranteeing that every child has a chance at higher education? We cannot spend money we don’t have but cannot afford to waste what we do have.
    Thank you if you have read to the end and read a few times as I did your article. Use your words for good, not to divide.

    • George Wiggins says:

      Mike — “devicive?” Oh, you mean “divisive,” meaning to “divide” people. You can’t fill a soul when the body’s hungry. Maybe that’s why Jesus took time to break the fish and loaves to feed the many instead of taking a lunch break during his ministry and letting the masses feed themselves?.

  2. Great article–very well done

  3. Caught in the Middle says:

    I have mixed feelings about your article. On one hand I do see how you could have put some love your own viewpoints into spinning the comments. I also have no problem with providing school lunch to children. I have many friends growing up and family members now who rely on the school lunch program. I also wonder if food stamps are truly going toward food then why would this be the only meal that the children would receive during the day? I have worked many jobs and have seen people come in and use the food stamp program to buy soda candy and many other unessential items. also the people buying these items we’re driving a vehicle that cost double my yearly salary. The real issue is reform of how the money that is received is actually spent. Until that is under control and there’s a resolution this issue will always be a hot button topic with no resolution.

    • Jeffrey Soto says:

      You have no idea how that person came across that car, and you’re making a huge assumption when you see someone who’s using food stamps who has SOME nice things such as a luxury car or a smartphone- they could very well have received them from a family member, or they could have bought them in the past when finances were not an issue. Medical conditions or accidents can consume one in a way that makes it difficult or impossible to support oneself or one’s family, and the way we deal with the less fortunate defines our society.

      There will always be complaints on how SNAP benefits are misused, and the answer to such waste is meaningful reform, not daft cuts across the board. The latter will actually take the food from children’s mouths, and there is no rationalizing such cruelty. You want a generation of criminals, miscreants, and freeloaders? Give poor children nothing to eat and nothing to hope for and teach them that society doesn’t care about their general welfare, and they will learn to take what they need.

      Also, I’d suggest you take the SNAP challenge (eat on $4.57 a day for a week). You’re wondering why kids are having trouble receiving three hot healthy meals a day on SNAP, and that suggests to me that you have never been on food assistance or had anyone close to you who has, or given much time towards studying how it works. It is a supplemental program; by no means is it even designed to meet a person’s nutritional needs on a daily basis, and I assure you that it cannot.

      There is no middle ground, here- you either don’t really know what you’re talking about, or you’re generally apathetic about the welfare of children.

  4. JACQUALIN says:

    Great piece shows the ignorant republican mind in all of it’s glory; The individuals that are on the fence must have never seen a bad neighborhood and so what if someone bought soda or candy. Do you justify the purchases that you make when you make them, No. Why should they ?

  5. This is not a well put together article. It jumps all over and uses quotes that only relate out of context. Paul Ryan wasn’t even talking about food stamps. He was talking about Obamacare, and used the full stomache–empty soul story as an analogy. We would be giving people a full stomache(healthcare)—empty soul(no work). In the same speech he states people want dignity and the opportunity to work, then claims that access to healthcare will drive people to leave the workforce. Which is it? Do people want to work/have dignity or get a free ride? He may have mixed up who told the story about the boy and his lunch and how the story actually goes, but it’s not even integral to his argument. It’s more of an anecdote in which he tried to string similar words/ideas together just like this article. Regardless, he is not referring to food stamps or school lunches. I am a huge fan of Ms. Magazine, but fact checking and a little less spin would be appreciated.

  6. What in the world does Obamacare have to do with working or not working? Health insurance through the exchanges is not a “free ride”– even with subsidies there are substantial costs– and it is there for people who are working but do not have employers who provide their insurance for them (which would be a kind of free ride, wouldn’t it?). I have a close family member who is eligible for Medicaid since it was expanded, but she is most definitely working, has supported herself since the age of 18, and doesn’t expect to be given anything. She worked straight through college and didn’t ask her parents to take care of her.

    The president wasn’t saying that access to healthcare would drive people to leave the workforce, and Yolanda seems to have a severe misunderstanding in that regard. (After all, if they leave the workforce, how are they going to pay for insurance?) With the situation we’ve had, with insurance tied to employment, our economy was skewed by the fact that people were stuck in their jobs because they needed to keep their insurance. They couldn’t move into other jobs that might be more suitable or in which they might be more productive, and what is more important for the country’s future, they couldn’t start their own businesses. Allowing Americans the freedom to make economic decisions that are best for them and their families, without this artificial pressure of needing job-based insurance, seems like something those on the right could support.

  7. Ok for the people that say that food stamps are often used for “unessential items” first of all it is impossible to buy a car or a cellphone with food stamps… UNLESS you sell those food stamps which is illegal. I understand there are some huge flaws in the food stamp system. I am a 17 year old girl I know kids that go to my high school that would starve without that free lunch. We shouldn’t be targeting the kids who couldn’t possibly work their way out of poverty without a high school degree AT LEAST! We need to crack down on the people that abuse the system. I am honestly shocked that they would have the audacity to attack a program that helps more than hurts. I understand we need to cut spending but these are for sure not the places we need to cut.

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