WASHINGTON -- Paul Ryan says the government safety net may protect Americans from the vicissitudes of life, but that handouts leave people unfulfilled in a more profound way.
"The left is making a big mistake here. What they're offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul," the Wisconsin Republican said in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week. "People don't just want a life of comfort. They want a life of dignity -- of self-determination."
But most Americans don't think handouts steal dignity from the poor, according to a new HuffPost/YouGov poll. And few think there's anything dignified about working for bad pay.
Ryan cited free school lunches as an example of something less-than-dignified, but by a 63 percent to 19 percent margin, most Americans said that giving free food to poor people does not undermine their dignity.
And although Ryan's speech highlighted his belief in "the dignity of work," the poll suggests not all work automatically pays in dignity. Only 30 percent of Americans said they think people working in low-wage jobs that don't pay enough for basic expenses gain dignity from those jobs simply by virtue of working. Fifty-eight percent said they think a job needs to at least cover basic living expenses to give a person dignity.
But there is some good news for Ryan in the poll: The overwhelming majority of Americans say they'd prefer an empty stomach and a full soul over a full stomach and an empty soul if forced to choose. Seventy-two percent said they would choose the full soul and only 28 percent said they would choose the full stomach. Seventy-eight percent of Republicans, 75 percent of independents and 65 percent of Democrats agreed on wanting the full soul, and the results varied little across income groups.
But Americans across the political spectrum think differently about whether hard work and empty stomachs bestow dignity on the poor.
By a 48 percent to 42 percent margin, a plurality of Republicans said that low-paying jobs that don't pay enough for basic expenses give dignity just by virtue of being work, while Democrats (by a 76 percent to 16 percent margin) and independents (by a 53 percent to 30 percent margin) said that jobs need to cover basic expenses to give dignity.
On the other hand, 52 percent of Republicans, 61 percent of independents and 75 percent of Democrats said that giving food to the poor doesn't undermine their dignity.
To improve the lot of the poor and middle class, Democrats have been pushing health insurance subsidies, a higher minimum wage and long-term unemployment insurance, while Republicans have argued that such policies are counterproductive. Ryan has written several budget proposals that would scale back government health insurance and nutrition assistance programs. He recently criticized health insurance subsidies that would result in some Americans voluntarily deciding to leave the workforce because they no longer needed insurance from an employer. Ryan said the government would be inducing some people "not to get on the ladder of life, to begin working, getting the dignity of work, getting more opportunities, rising their income, joining the middle class."
Americans on the top rungs of the ladder were more likely than lower income groups to say that a job gives a person dignity even if it doesn't cover basic expenses. By a 53 percent to 40 percent margin, respondents with a household income of more than $100,000 said that people working in low-wage jobs that don't cover their expenses do gain dignity simply by virtue of working. Clear majorities in all other income groups disagreed.
But even the respondents making more than $100,000 a year said by a 60 percent to 31 percent margin that giving poor people free food doesn't undermine their dignity.
The HuffPost/YouGov poll was conducted March 7-10 among 1,000 U.S. adults using a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population. Factors considered include age, race, gender, education, employment, income, marital status, number of children, voter registration, time and location of Internet access, interest in politics, religion and church attendance.