Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
By Roger Bybee
Paul Ryan is Janesville's Marie Antoinette.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) recently proclaimed his interest in curing poverty, apparently as a run-up to a try for the Republican presidential nomination after serving as Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012.
But if Romney insulted 47% of the population with his infamous remarks to a closed group of donors by demeaning them as dependent on government handouts, Ryan has made Romney look like a real egalitarian with his latest comments.
Ryan went a step beyond Romney with his suggestion that African-American men are locked in a culture that doesn't value work and his assertion that government school-lunch programs somehow degrade children who need the food, providing them with a “full belly but an empty soul.”
Each of Ryan's statements ignited a firestorm of outrage—and a hilarious and biting riposte from Jon Stewart. To top it off, the crucial anecdote Ryan used in attacking free and reduced-cost school lunches turned out to be totally false.
Backing off his remarks, Ryan claimed that his comments on work had no hidden racial sub-text.
In reality, Ryan’s original statements were an all-too-honest reflection of the views of someone who has repeatedly expressed his worry about “a future in which we will transform our social safety net into a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency."
Listeners accustomed to years of Republican dog-whistle rhetoric don't need to be told the skin color of all those lazy men and school-lunch-dependent children resting in hammocks at public expense. But these cutting comments cruelly ignore the reality in cities like Milwaukee, where black workers have been among the chief victims of deindustrialization which has wiped out more than 80% of industrial jobs since 1977.
Ryan’s comments are especially demeaning to the overwhelmingly white First District he represents in southeastern Wisconsin. Much of the district is composed of factory towns whose economic hearts have been ripped out by deindustrialization and globalization, fed by the “free trade” agreements which Ryan has championed. These once-bustling industrial centers include Racine, Kenosha, and Ryan’s hometown of Janesville. The city of Beloit, just outside Janesville and formerly in Ryan’s district, has also been languishing.
Janesville became famous, briefly, after Ryan’s false claim in 2012 that President Obama promised to keep open a General Motors plant which closed just before Christmas in 2008. That city, more than any other, has borne the brunt of Ryan's contempt for workers and the poor in his own district. Ryan’s Janesville, a community of about 62,000, has barely stayed afloat after losing an estimated 11,000 jobs directly and indirectly wiped out by the GM closing (meanwhile GM has kept channeling hundreds of millions into a plant it built in Silao Mexico to duplicate Janesville’s production lines).
After the GM plant closed, Janesville experienced a surge in human misery of all kinds--women seeking shelter from abuse, as well as suicide, food shortages, unmet health needs, and homelessness. Everyone Cooperating to Help Others Inc., a local faith-based organization, experienced nearly a 15-fold increase in demand for food from 2003 to 2009. Another indicator of the city’s plight is the percentage of children who qualify for those free and reduced-cost lunches that Ryan disparaged. The percentage of children eligible for these lunches soared from 34% in 2007 to 52.8% by the fall 2012.
Paul Ryan is Janesville's own Marie Antoinette.
The Congressman has repeatedly and consistently opposed extending unemployment benefits (again during the recent budget negotiations with Sen. Patty Murray) and funding for food stamps and foreclosure assistance (although desperately needed in his birthplace, where the county saw foreclosures nearly quadruple 2000-2009).
As Budget Committee chair, Ryan was a leader among Republicans in using the federal budget sequester to push to cut off 750,000 mothers and children from the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program that provides baby formula for infants and food for children. He endorsed the latest reauthorization of a federal school lunch program that only increased funding for meals by six cents, which fails to catch up with rising food costs and new requirements. Ryan also helped make sure that there was no increase for meals given to children in Head Start and child care programs.
While imposing his prescription of austerity for working people and the growing ranks of the poor, Ryan has shown considerably more generosity toward his Wall Street donors. A strong supporter of the banking de-regulation that set the stage for the financial meltdown of September, 2008, Ryan supported the $800 billion bailout of Wall Street banks. He even helped write a Republican report that was memorably feeble in its criticism of the banks’ reckless conduct, declaring that they were “not entirely free of blame.”
In the minds of Paul Ryan and his corporate sponsors, the blame for America’s economic problems can be affixed to the victims of the increasingly unequal economy. Their solution, as always: less money for jobs, education, and food for those below the top 1% and more tax breaks and more income for “the job creators.”
If you want to see how that program works for most Americans, look no further than Janesville.