[Laura Schroff, the author of "An Invisible Thread" -- the book from which Paul Ryan's anecdote described below was extracted -- contacted The Huffington Post earlier tonight. This piece has been updated with her remarks, below.]
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has recently undertaken a great rebranding of his public image, adopting a new persona as "The Serious Wonk Who's Now Way, Way Into Empathizing With The Poors." It hasn't all gone according to plan. In recent days, Ryan has attempted to demonstrate a new facility with scholarly materials on poverty programs and to pad out his budget with a sheen of concern. The results were rather misbegotten: as Jonathan Chait noted earlier this week, many of the social scientists cited by Ryan have been giving Ryan the ol' "you know nothing of my work" routine from "Annie Hall."
Thursday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Ryan reached for another story, claiming it as insight into poverty. He may have bungled this attempt, too.
As Talking Points Memo's Catherine Thompson reported, Ryan railed against programs that are designed to ensure that poor schoolchildren receive a free lunch at school, characterizing the people who support such programs as offering these children "a full stomach and an empty soul." Ryan then launched into what he called an anecdote "relayed to him by Eloise Anderson," who serves as the Department of Children and Families secretary in the administration of Wisconsin Gov. 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," Ryan said.
"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 continued. "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."
But as an eagle-eyed TPM commenter noted, it was extremely unlikely that this child told Eloise Anderson anything of the kind. That's because this anecdote is actually from a book titled "An Invisible Thread," by Laura Schroff:
The paper-bag lunch story is from a 2011 book about a hungry, panhandling kid in New York City.
And the kid in the book wasn't turning down gov't subsidized lunches at school, he was reacting to a private benefactor's offer to pay for his cafeteria lunches at school.
"Look, Maurice, I don't want you out there hungry on the nights I don't see you, so this is what we can do. I can either give you some money for the week--and you'll have to be really careful about how you spend it--or when you come over on Monday night we can go to the supermarket and I can buy all the things you like to eat and make you lunch for the week. I'll leave it with the doormen, and you can pick it up on the way to school."
Maurice looked at me and asked me a question.
"If you make me lunch," he said, "will you put it in a brown paper bag?"
I didn't really understand the question. "Do you want it in a brown paper bag?" I asked. "Or how would you prefer it?"
"Miss Laura," he said, "I don't want your money. I want my lunch in a brown paper bag."
"Okay, sure. But why do you want it in a bag?"
"Because when I see kids come to school with their lunch in a paper bag, that means someone cares about them. Miss Laura, can I please have my lunch in a paper bag?"
Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler told Chait that it seems as if Anderson essentially fibbed to Ryan about the source of this story. Kessler cites the transcript of a July 31, 2013 congressional hearing, in which Anderson recounted the "anecdote" in front of Ryan:
My thought has always been around the SNAP program even when it was called "food stamps" is, why do you have this program, school program, school breakfast, school lunch, school dinner, when do we start asking parents to be responsible for their children?
You know, a little boy told me once that what was important to him is that he didn't want school lunch, he wanted a brown bag because the brown bag that he brought with his lunch in it meant that his mom cared about him. Just think what we have done. If this kid tells me a brown bag was more important than a free lunch, we've missed the whole notion of parents being there for their children because we've taken over that responsibility, and I think we need to be very careful about how we provide programs to families that don't undermine families' responsibilities.
Again, it would seem that either Eloise Anderson and Laura Schroff have led eerily parallel lives, or that Anderson simply appropriated Schroff's story as her own.
Chait writes, "It's also interesting that Anderson's conclusion from the...story is that the school lunch program makes parents into lazy slackers, while Ryan's conclusion is that it robs children of their soul." Of course, there's one party whose conclusions haven't been fully explicated within the context of Ryan's appropriation yet -- Laura Schroff. Schroff was, at the time of publication, temporarily unavailable for comment. We will update this piece when we are able to connect.
Suffice it to say that Paul Ryan might be better at understanding the plights of poor people if he actually went out and attempted to meet some, instead of roughly trading second-hand accounts.
UPDATE, 9:30pm: Earlier this evening, I spoke to Laura Schroff, the author of "An Invisible Thread," about Ryan's remarks at CPAC and the provenance of the anecdote that Anderson has apparently been sharing as her own. If there's one ambition Schroff doesn't have, it's getting her work caught up in the Beltway hurlyburly.
"The one thing I'll say about 'An Invisible Thread' is that it's not a political book in any way." Schroff says her intention is to cross across boundaries like race and class. "When I go to public schools to talk about the book, it helps the kids have hope. When I talk to kids at private school, they feel grateful."
In responding to today's news, she was exceedingly charitable to those involved.
"It's hard for me to know how to respond to this, because I've never heard Eloise Anderson talk about this story. In some ways, her account is very similar, but really, it's drastically different."
Schroff says that it was absolutely correct to view the brown paper bag as a totem of love, a sign that a child like Maurice -- the young, homeless panhandler she befriended -- had someone in his life that cared for him. "I say this to all the schools that I've visited that Maurice has told me the meaning of of the brown paper bag -- the bag is merely paper, but it is really about love…its a reminder that someone loves you. This is the one story that always comes up whenever we have talked about it."
"But Maurice describes being hungry as being punched in the stomach," she countered, "And given the choice between a free lunch and not eating at all, he would choose the free lunch."
Schroff very politely rejected Ryan's "full stomachs, empty souls," construction, explaining that her life's work is about showing other people, especially children, that kindness makes a huge difference in the lives of both the giver and the recipient. "When you give a small act of kindness, expecting nothing in return, the rewards are great."
"I want people to think about what they can do to make the world a kinder world," she said. "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."
She continued: "When you are in the position to help someone out, why wouldn't you? As citizens of the United States of America, it's our responsibility to help our neighbors. You don't have to save the world, but there are many ways to reach out and help people in need."
If there is a silver lining to getting knit up in a CPAC presentation, Schroff says that its the opportunity to maybe share her work with others. To that end, I'll point out that a portion of the proceeds garnered from sales of her book go to Share Our Strength's "No Kid Hungry" campaign. On her website, she lists numerous other "organizations making a difference for children and families in need."
Ultimately, she prefers to think the best about the person who's been trading a story similar to hers in the halls of power. "If Eloise Anderson knows about another kid with a brown paper bag story," she says, "that's great."
Speaking only for myself, I hope that one day we'll find out whether or not meeting that "young boy from a very poor family" motivated Anderson to do something more profound than craft political talking points.