Among the headliners at today’s CPAC was Paul Ryan, everybody’s favorite Objectivist-Thomist “reformer.” It was a brief speech, mainly involving name-checks of a long list of fellow-conservative worthies (Tim Scott, Eric Cantor, Tom Graves, Mike Lee, Martha Roby, Dave Camp, Phil Roe, Tom Price, Phil Roe, Tom Coburn, Scott Walker). But amidst the blandness, he made one remark that offers a deep insight into his famous approach to poverty programs:

What [the Left is] offering people is a full stomach—and an empty soul. The American people want more than that.

This reminds me of a story I heard from Eloise Anderson. She serves in the cabinet of my friend Governor Scott Walker. She once met a young boy from a poor family. And every day at school, he would get a free lunch from a government program. But 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 wanted one, he said, because he knew a kid with a brown-paper bag had someone who cared for him.

Jonathan Chait exposes the fine reformist “thinking” behind this parable:

Okay, fine. Some kid would rather have his parents pack him a lunch than get it for free at school. Most kids would also rather have their parents drive them to school and drop them off then ride the bus. But just as not ever child has a parent who can drive them to school, not every kid has parents who can afford to give them lunches every day. That’s why “the left” supports things like school buses and free and reduced-price school lunches. Because a free bus ride and a free lunch may not be the best possible way to transport and feed children, but it’s better than nothing.

Ryan’s plan is to reduce funding for the school lunch program. So more kids will have empty stomachs, but their souls will be full.

Totally aside from whether it is the role of government to fill the souls of children, the idea that the first step towards soul food is to eliminate the food is a mite cruel. The very basic fact that safety net programs do in fact reduce hunger and homelessness and disease does not register into the equation–which is why Ryan’s own measures of poverty exclude the tangible value of government benefits.

The old saying about minimal income from whatever source that it is just enough “to keep body and soul together” is actually pretty profound. Poverty may improve the spiritual condition of mystics, but it’s really bad for kids and sick people and people who have to work long hours in difficult physical jobs to make ends meet. And if you look at and listen to Paul Ryan, the notion that this is a man of great moral and spiritual depth entitled to lecture the poor on their slavery to government is a bigger outrage than all the actual “welfare fraud” that has ever existed.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.