Man of the Century

Paul Ryan is the man of the century. Unfortunately, that century is the 14th.

Per Daily Kos:

Ryan basically wants to divide the poor up into two groups: the deserving poor (elderly and disabled people), who will get special protections from his plans; and the undeserving poor, who will be his guinea pigs. This group would have to sign contracts promising to meet specific goals and would lose aid if they didn’t meet the goals, and they’d be trying to hit their goals with lots of personal supervision from the government or a private company with a government contract.

The notion that some poor people are “deserving” and others are not can be traced all the way back to the English Poor Laws, which (among other things) prohibited people from giving “alms to the sturdy beggar.” 

Supporters of social welfare programs and the critics of those programs are still arguing about policies dating to 1349, when England enacted the Statute of Laborers, prohibiting alms, or charity, for those who had the ability to work–that is, to “sturdy beggars.” (Never mind whether work was available to them.)

The distinction between the “worthy” and “unworthy” poor was substantially grounded in the Calvinist belief that poverty is evidence of divine disapproval, while virtue is signaled by material success. That belief has morphed somewhat (the undeserving poor now lack “middle class values” rather than divine approval), but it continues to influence American law and culture.

In the early 1900s, this moral opprobrium directed at the poor found an ally in psuedo-science, and poverty issues were caught up in the national debate between Social Darwinists like William Graham Summer and their critics. In language reminiscent of those earlier admonitions against rewarding “sturdy beggars,” Sumner wrote:

“But the weak who constantly arouse the pity of humanitarians and philanthropists are the shiftless, the imprudent, the negligent, the impractical, and the inefficient, or they are the idle, the intemperate, the extravagant and the vicious. Now the troubles of these persons are constantly forced upon public attention, as if they and their interests deserved especial consideration, and a great portion of all organized and unorganized effort for the common welfare consists in attempts to relieve these classes of people….

If I believed in reincarnation, I’d seriously entertain the possibility that Sumner has returned as Paul Ryan….


  1. Ryan is using the Republican Code Words to communicate to his base. The Republicans have used Law and Order, Silent Majority, States Rights, Family Values, Sincerely held Religious Beliefs, etc., to communicate to their base. It does not take a decoder ring interpreter to translate the message. The Republican Base will get the message that the deserving poor are White.

    Walmart and the Mega- Fast Food Chains would like this Ryan Plan. The Ryan Plan would Force people to accept minimum wage no benefit employment in order to receive Government assistance. The Ryan Plan is Medieval Serfdom.

  2. Ryan needs to do a google search on the Bonus Army. Poor people don’t just sit and starve, they get up and act.

  3. The new Republicans never seem able to grasp that some people struggle because of factors beyond their own control. The labor market has been a buyer’s market since W killed the economy; that gives employers more power to reduce wages and benefits and to outsource to China or Sri Lanka, killing many already low wage jobs. For anyone who has recently tried to apply for a job, you know that the market is much different than when workers still had a few rights; employers can discriminate freely in “right to work” states like Indiana. I’d like to hear Ryan or Mitch McConnell speak to that.

  4. Will the poor, again have to wear “P” so we can distinguish them? If we’re going back that far in time, let’s make it simple on the simpletons to know who is who.

  5. Does this guy WANT a revolution? Start drawing lines in which someone arbitrarily draws the line between “deserving” and “undeserving” and things get slippery. Fewer people are the deserving ones, and when enough people are treated like trash, the 1% gets rough justice. Not a really good idea.

  6. Paul Ryan is a politician with fascist tendencies, and his proposal reflects that. The notion that Ryan is intellectual is false. How and why people are poor is a problem complicated by the various causes of that condition and the lack of meaningful resources to change it. How and why people who are able to work stand on a street corner and beg is equally complicated. For myself, I believe that handing them cash is a bad idea.

    In the modern world, it is possible to let your compassion make you someone’s fool. It is also possible to let your political ambitions carry you to exploit all poor people because this sometimes happens.

  7. Years ago I read a study saying welfare was cheaper than providing families the means to escape it. To become working parents would require the expense of day care. Those without cars or neighbors with cars needed public transportation. Those considering jobs would have to think twice about taking them if the job offered no health insurance but would render them ineligible for Medicaid. One’s children could lose free textbooks and free or reduced school lunches (and breakfasts) that poor wages could not replace. There was more, but it made me wonder if those who remained on welfare rather than take a poor-paying job that left their children sick, hungry, behind in school, and unattended were those with the real family values.

  8. I just wonder what this guy read to get these ideas, and if he’s ever wondered how much of it based on ideologically-driven urban legends. I’d like to see the list of “facts” on which he has based these proposals. Not just bottom line numbers, but what he thinks is true of poor people.

  9. Conservative are because they focus on problems. Liberals because they focus on solutions.

    Are “sturdy beggars” a problem here and now? Yes. A big problem? No. Why? We have laws enforced by an army of social workers who devote their lives to weeding them out of the needy and preventing them from depriving others of what “sturdy beggars” want but others need. Sustenance.

    Are the social workers completely successful? Perhaps about as successful as police are in preventing crime. Should we hire more social workers to do what gets missed today? I doubt it.

    Of course anyone could tease this knowledge out of the data. Paul Ryan, apparently not. He doesn’t want to because what he does care about is getting elected and there are no voters easier to fool than conservatives.

  10. @ Pete

    I agree with what you mean in general, but we do need to hire a few more social worker types of people, and less of other types.

    While plenty of people say that they want to help the deserving poor, every anti-poor initiative I have ever seen advocated hurts the disabled and elderly far more than it does the so-called targeted underserving. Plenty of people don’t really seem to be about helping the so-called deserving poor either.

    Drug testing that is extremely expensive is about trying to catch and deny every underserving person, and those that advocate for drug testing don’t seem to care that it hurts at a huge cost so many so-called deserving poor in the process. It is also ineffective and doesn’t do the job promised either. Replace the people hired to do drug testing with social workers, and compliance will be much improved. Drug testing is a waste of money, especially when ironically a social worker could do far better compliance and also offer some helpful case management for the same amount of money.

    We really have been successful for the most part on the individual level (yes we really have), but helping at the individual level is very limited when there are system level failures. Food stamps have been successful in that individuals at least get something to eat. It is not a failure of food stamps that people have needs beyond food stamps. It takes system-wide coordination to have the big impact that is needed at the community level. As long as we focus ONLY on the individual, a system of opportunity is not going to be there for individuals.

  11. One problem that interferes with these kinds of discussions is that while we are talking about the impact of interventions on large groups of people, percentages and comparisons, all you need is for someone to start with, “Well, I knew this guy who…” Then the anecdote takes the place of evidence and takes the stage, be it good or horrible, and whether it’s true or urban legend. And oh, the urban legends. Like the guy I heard last night who really believes that ten ISIS members were caught at the border: urban legend and garbage. Anecdotes trump the argument.

  12. I just read an article by Jim Wallis, in which he cited a number of people who say that the Ebola crisis is really an inequality crisis. The poor people of this world do not have the knowledge and infrastructure that the developed countries have. As long as the Ryans of this world can separate the worthy “deserving” from the unworthy “undeserving” who were foolish enough to be born in the wrong place, and it works for them, they can get by with it, but what happens when all of that breaks down, and the Ebola which is wiping out the poor people starts to kill us? I guess the bell tolls for thee.

    In his adoration of Ayn Rand, he has forgotten his lip service to the Catholic church which has made a rather public priority to care for the widow, the orphan, and the sick. Ayn Rand isn’t always easy to figure out, because she was a little looney, but the scriptures are not so hard. Like Mark Twain said, it wasn’t the scripture that he couldn’t figure out that bothered him. It was the scripture he understood perfectly that bothered him.

    You can read the article at the following site:

  13. An interesting question to think about. What measurable outcome should the goal of welfare be?

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