Paul Ryan: Christian Charity in Action
Around noon on Saturday, October 13, having a full 15 minutes to spare en route to an airport with his family after a morning “town hall” session at Youngstown State University in Ohio, Republic Party vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan stopped by a soup kitchen in Youngstown to help out by washing some dishes. Conveniently, he had a cluster of still photographers and videographers along to document for posterity his spontaneous act of selfless generosity and devotion to the poor. (Click here for the video on YouTube.)
Ryan wasn’t invited to the soup kitchen. He didn’t seek official permission to come, or provide any prior notification to its management. So his opportunistic drop-in was unauthorized. According to Brian J. Antal, president of the Mahoning County St. Vincent De Paul Society, the Ohio charity that runs the soup kitchen, Ryan “ramrodded” his way in with his entourage and the press corps.
As it happened, the food service for the morning meal had ended, those the kitchen served had all left, and all the dishes would already have been cleaned — except that Ryan’s reps had taken the precaution of calling ahead to tell the soup kitchen to leave some dishes unwashed. So, upon arrival, Ryan donned an apron, got aprons on his three children and his wife Janna, and proceeded to wash some not particularly dirty pots and pans. After a few minutes, Wonk Boy, whose avowedly faith-based policies would devastate the already fragile support system for those who need safety-net resources like soup kitchens, dried his hands, spoke a few words with several homeless people, and departed. Thus ended his distribution of largesse to the needy.
“The photo-op they did wasn’t even accurate,” Antal told reporters when he learned of the visit. “He did nothing. He just came in here to get his picture taken at the dining hall.” On behalf of the 47 percent, then, let me say thanks for nothing.
Furthermore, Ryan jeopardized the charity’s funding by using its facilities to make himself look good for the cameras. According to Antal, any request by the Romney campaign through the proper channels to have the Ryan family volunteer at the non-partisan charity center (much less fake volunteering for the press) would have been denied. “We’re a faith-based organization; we are apolitical because the majority of our funding is from private donations. It’s strictly in our bylaws not to [to allow their facility to be used for electioneering by politicians].” Donors have already begun dropping out, Antel reports.
“They showed up there, and they did not have permission. They got one of the volunteers to open up the doors. They talked to a volunteer who didn’t understand the bylaws and the rules of our society,” Antal explained. “I get the fact that they were starry-eyed. I don’t fully blame them.” He added, “Our concern was our donor base. We’re not here to fight the war between Republicans and Democrats. We’re here to fight the war on hunger.” (For the most comprehensive report on this fiasco, see the October 16 report in Forbes, “Ryan’s Despicable Soup Kitchen Antics A Perfect Metaphor For GOP Ticket’s Disrespect For The Poor,” from Rick Ungar, himself a Youngstown native.)
Paul Ryan is the human face of “compassionate conservatism,” in other words. The rise to the top of the Republic Party of this cynical, opportunistic piece of white Wisconsin trash is proof positive that, even in the fetid waters of the radical right, fecal matter floats.
Since I’m on the subject, more or less: Has the working class disappeared?
If not, how come no one uses that term anymore? Apparently we now have, in ascending order, the poor (including the “working poor”), the middle class, and the rich in our presumably classless society. According to both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, you’re in the middle class until your income rises above $250K per year, with somewhere around $55K per annum — not coincidentally the median income for Americans today — as the entry point into the middle class. But no one talks about the working class; avoidance of that locution suggests that it’s become something of an insult. Or else that everyone below middle-class status is, by definition, poor.
Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me?
Full disclosure: By that measure, and the adjusted figures for previous years, I’ve only occasionally flirted with middle-class status since I began my professional life. In my best years I’ve pulled in a decent working-class income. In my worst, I’ve been at or below the poverty level for New York City.
Yet I’ve never considered myself poor. I own my own home (bought very cheaply in 1969, on a long-since-paid-off 25-year mortgage). I own some art, and lots of books. I manage to pay my bills mostly on time. I’ve owned cars (always used). My immediate family and I have never missed a meal, gone without hot water and clean clothes, or lacked a roof over our heads. I’ve seen poverty; we have more than our share of it here in my economically depressed neighborhood in the boonies. But I can’t claim that as my condition.
By choice, I make my living as an independent producer of intellectual property, copyright of which I retain, usage of which I license in various forms: print and electronic publication, lectures, seminars, post-secondary classes, exhibitions. Per my “Dinosaur Bones” commentary last fall, these are imperiled professional fields, economically speaking, but while I scramble to figure out how to reconfigure my revenue stream I don’t regret for a minute my participation in those fields to date.
I don’t qualify as a “job creator,” insofar as I haven’t ever been an employer (aside from the occasional minimum-wage intern or assistant). But I did pioneer a specialization — that of photography critic — at several periodicals (the Village Voice, the New York Times), which resulted in establishing slots there that others filled after my departure: Ben Lifson and Vince Aletti at the Voice, Andy Grundberg, Vicki Goldberg, and Charles Hagen at the Times. Also, by tolerating low fees and pay scales in my roles as a freelance writer/lecturer and adjunct teacher, and often donating my services to nonprofit organizations and other worthy enterprises, I’ve effectively helped to subsidize the chronically underfunded arts and education sectors of the economy.
Because I work as a maker of IP every day and most weekends to pay my bills, even if at white-collar tasks and on my own schedule, I consider myself working-class. As such, mostly self-employed but sometimes hired by art institutes, colleges, and universities, I’ve variously paid self-employment taxes, income taxes on wages, FICA taxes, property taxes, school taxes, sales taxes, and even capital-gains taxes on some investments. Working for myself as I’ve done, or as adjunct faculty, no employer has ever contributed to any pension plan on which I can fall back now. I’ve paid enough in income taxes that, when I start to take Social Security upon turning 70, I’ll get the median amount.
At 65 I qualified for Medicare, which came as a great relief; the cost of health insurance for a self-employed individual had risen so high, proportional to my net income, that I spent three years uninsured before that. This year, with the arts and education sectors particularly hard-hit by the Great Recession, the amount I’m pulling in has shrunk to the point that I qualify for food stamps.
I feel no need to apologize for any of that usage of the social safety net. I believe that my productivity, manifested in what I’ve contributed to my several disciplines in my various functions (critic, historian, teacher, lecturer, curator), qualifies me for participation in plans legislatively approved for working stiffs like me.
I especially feel no need to apologize for this to pampered, privileged private-schools snots like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan — particularly when Romney’s family accepted welfare benefits for several years starting in 1912, and Ryan used Social Security survivors benefits to pay for his college education.
I consider Romney’s belated, mealy-mouthed, devious retraction of his “47 percent” comments on October 4 nothing more than further evidence, if that were needed, that this hypocrite will say anything, absolutely anything, to get himself elected. I note that he doesn’t actually apologize for the remarks and the insults he knowingly imbedded therein. (As the title of his 2010 campaign autobiography makes clear, he doesn’t believe in apologizing.) He merely says this: “Clearly in a campaign, with hundreds if not thousands of speeches and question-and-answer sessions, now and then you’re going to say something that doesn’t come out right. In this case, I said something that’s just completely wrong.”
That is to say, he’s a busy guy, he gives lots of speeches, so he can’t always be perfect. Sure. As the Obama campaign ad in response to this states, “He Said It, He Meant It.”
So I find Romney’s “Too Many Americans” ad offensive. Not only does it say absolutely nothing specific about what he will do for those of us who are “struggling to find work in today’s economy . . . living paycheck to paycheck . . . on food stamps” — that evasion has by now become a Romney trademark — but its supposed compassion and “outreach to the working class” rings false. It’s the Republicans, not the Democrats, who consistently advocate budget cuts for education and the arts. It’s the Republicans, not the Democrats, whose policies resulted in the fiscal collapse of 2008 that devastated those sectors in particular, thus directly affecting my income.
Sixty seconds of vague promises don’t counterbalance 50 minutes of Romney’s palpable disdain for people like me. The fact that he and his coterie believe it does adds insult on top of insult to injury.
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This post supported by a donation from the Estate of Lyle Bongé.