A story too good to check: Paul Ryan and the tale of the brown paper bag

In a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told a story about school lunches and brown paper bags. Turns out it wasn't true, according the The Post's Glenn Kessler. (The Associated Press)

 

“The left is making a big mistake here. What they’re 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 buddy, Governor 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. 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. This is what the left does not understand.”

– Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, March 6, 2014

This was an interesting statement made by the 2012 GOP vice-presidential candidate, equating school lunches to an “empty soul.” So one would think the anecdote, described by the National Review as “moving,” would be rock-solid. But the story seemed a bit pat.

Did Eloise Anderson, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, ever meet such a child?

The Facts

The first thing we did was look for Eloise Anderson and stories about brown paper bags. We discovered a congressional hearing, held on July 31, 2013, and chaired by Ryan, that focused on the War on Poverty. Ryan asked Anderson, who appeared as an expert witness, what should be done to make the food stamp program, also known as SNAP, work better.

Anderson responded:

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.

Okay, so Anderson had testified about this boy, and claimed that she had spoken to him and realized that welfare programs were draining any sense of responsibility. As she put it, “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.”

But the story doesn’t end there. Wonkette, a satiric blog, wondered if Anderson’s story was actually derived from a 2011 book titled “The Invisible Thread,” by Laura Schroff, which is about a busy executive and her relationship with an 11-year-old homeless panhandler named Maurice Mazyck. His mother was a drug addict, in jail, who had stolen things and cashed in food stamps to pay for drugs. At one point, Schroff offers to bring Mazyck lunch every day so he won’t go hungry. The exchange goes like this:

“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?”

This actually seemed a little strange. Could the tale told in congressional testimony really be drawn from a book? It did not make much sense in part because Schroff and Mazyck are partnering with a group called No Kid Hungry to help end childhood hunger in the United States. One key part of the program is connecting hungry kids with federal programs such as school lunches and food stamps. The group also opposed Ryan’s 2013 budget for its proposed reductions in the food stamp program.

So we asked Anderson when she met this boy and heard his story. Joe Scialfa, communications director for the department provided us with this answer:

In the course of giving live testimony, Secretary Anderson misspoke.  What she had intended to say was the following:

“Once I heard someone say, ‘what was important to him as a boy was 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.’”

Secretary Anderson was referring to a television interview which she had seen with Maurice Mazyck.

It’s important to note that there is no discussion in the book about the school lunch program, and we could find no interview with Mazyck in which he said that. He simply repeats the story as told in the book, without any larger political context about federal programs to help hungry children. Moreover, this incident happened more than 25 years ago; Mazyck is no longer a boy but in his late 30s.

Kevin Seifert, a spokesman for Ryan, said: “It’s unfortunate to learn that while testifying before the House Budget Committee, Secretary Anderson misspoke, but we appreciate her taking the time to share her insights.” After our inquiry, Ryan posted a notice on Facebook saying, “I regret failing to verify the original source of the story.”

The Pinocchio Test

Here at The Fact Checker, we often deal with situations in which people misspeak. We certainly don’t try to play gotcha. But this is a different order of magnitude. Anderson, in congressional testimony, represented that she spoke to this child — and then ripped the tale out of its original context. That’s certainly worthy of Four Pinocchios.

But what about Ryan? Should he get a pass because he heard this from a witness before Congress? It really depends on the circumstances. In this case, he referenced the story in a major speech. The burden always falls on the speaker, and we believe politicians need to check the facts in any prepared remarks.

In this case, apparently, the story was too good to check. We appreciate he is regretful now. But a simple inquiry would have determined that the person telling the story actually is an advocate for the federal programs that Ryan now claims leave people with “a full stomach and an empty soul.” So he also earns Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios

 


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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.
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Glenn Kessler · March 6