Paul Ryan, as you likely know by now, is from Janesville, WI. Here is Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker profile if you’d like to brush up on Paul’s background. I’m also from Janesville, WI. Ryan grew up just a few blocks from where I lived with my parents, went to the same public high school, and he continues to attend the Catholic parish where I had my first communion and confirmation (yes, despite my previous post, I used to identify as Catholic). Like me, Ryan’s father died when he was a teenager. The parallels of our early lives are striking to me, just like they were to James Zogby as he wrote this column, and to a current Janesville teacher who wrote this excellent blog post.
Many others have pointed out the contradictions in Ryan’s biography and political ideology better (and quicker) than I have here. Still, the personal connection I feel with his story has my sociological imagination running wild.
The Story of My Life, and Paul’s too
Janesville, known as Wisconsin’s Park Place because of its great public parks, could reasonably be described as a working class town trying to figure out what it will be after the loss of a GM assembly plant in 2008. When I was a kid, there were several families on my block with parents who worked on the line at the plant. Like Paul Ryan, my father didn’t work at the plant. Ryan’s father was a lawyer, and mine was a self-employed insurance salesman. So, neither of has had as direct a connection to GM as so many of our neighbors. I’ve sometimes felt that not having a direct family link to GM made me somewhat of an outsider in Janesville. I wonder if Paul Ryan feels that way.
Even without the GM connection, however, my family was thoroughly working class. I don’t know a lot about my father’s background, but I understand that he was the only one of 4 kids in his family to finish high school. He didn’t attend college, and my mother attended college only briefly. There weren’t models of ‘the professional’ in my house, even though my father worked until the day he died at age 50, and my mother worked clerical jobs for most of my childhood through her retirement. I didn’t know then, but know now that it was very often a struggle to make ends meet. From my childhood perspective, I knew that eventually people got jobs and that working was something you had to do, but I never thought much about a career. I certainly didn’t think about selecting a college or a major that would put me on a career path. In fact, I remember quite clearly not wanting to go to college, but not knowing what else to do when my mom said, “go to college or get a job.”
At that point, I didn’t have the cultural capital, or the family financial safety net that I would guess Paul Ryan, son of a lawyer and part of family running a powerful local construction company, did. Nonetheless, I was taught to value education by my mother, and I was fortunate to attend good public schools (including Roosevelt Elementary, a WPA funded building) with teachers who prepared me well. When I graduated high school at Janesville Craig, I applied to only one college, the same UW-Whitewater that my older siblings had attended (my older brother being the first on my father’s side to finish college). Thanks to affordable tuition at a public university, Social Security survivor benefits, a Pell Grant, some loans I’m still paying off, and modest scholarships, I was able to go to a quality school. I majored in sociology with mentors including Drs. Lanny Neider, W. Lawrence Neuman, and George Yancey who showed me that even though there wasn’t a lot of money to be made in sociology, it could help me see the world I knew very little about in new and exciting ways.
With a social science degree, a lot of people do like I did and go to graduate school. I went to the University of Notre Dame where I eventually earned an MA and, at age 28, a PhD in Sociology. I then entered a tough job market, applying for about 60 jobs across the country and getting 3 interviews before I came to Le Moyne College where I’m now an associate professor of sociology. I feel fortunate because now I am earning a solidly middle class income that is more than my parents ever made. My sociological perspective makes it impossible for me to look at individuals (even myself!) without seeing the complex social networks, institutions, and cultures within which they live. I worked hard to finish my degrees, but without my family experiences, quality public schools from kindergarten through my bachelor’s degree, and assistance from the federal government in the form of Social Security and a Pell Grant, I would not be where I am now.
After finishing at Craig, Paul Ryan also went to a state school, Miami of Ohio. He’s said himself by paying with Social Security survivor benefits that he was able to put away after his father’s death. Like me, Paul Ryan was a social science major, earning degrees in economics and political science. After a college internship with a Wisconsin politician, Ryan became a speechwriter for Jack Kemp. In the Lizza profile, Ryan is quoted saying that “Jack Kemp is what sucked me into public policy, public service, and politics. He called it the battle of ideas, and I just really got into it.”
At 27, Ryan left this work in politics to enter the private sector as a marketing consultant. Where did he go to work? At the successful Janesville construction company founded by his great-grandfather over 100 years before Paul got the job. As Amy Davidson wisely points out here, Ryan’s family business was built by earlier generations, and benefited from public investment in infrastructure like roads and airports. Fortunately, Ryan didn’t have to feel guilty about not earning this job by competing in the employment market for long. At the age of 28, Paul Ryan became a member of the House of Representatives.
Paul Ryan’s Arsenal of Ideas
For 14 years Ryan has been serving Wisconsin’s first district and has emerged as a leader in the ‘battle of ideas’ to which Jack Kemp introduced him. He’s made his political name by championing the free market and warning us of the evils of government dependency. True moral virtue, I think Paul would argue, is cultivated by making one’s own way in the world, without depending on government, by picking oneself up by the bootstraps.
In his Path to Prosperity, Ryan prioritizes military spending and the free enterprise system. He writes that the “first responsibility of the federal government is the safety and security of all Americans,” by which he means cultivating the military strength without which America’s “ideals are diminished” (p. 7). He writes that Americans are “endangered by unwarranted expansions of government” (p. 9), and champions “a free society built on entrepreneurial risk-taking and hard work” (p. 7). The 3 budgets he’s proposed over the last few years all involve significant cuts to our existing social safety nets, including Medicare, Medicaid, and SNAP (food stamps).
We both grew up in Janesville, but I was living in working class Janesville while he was reared in middle class Janesville (his summer job at McDonald’s duly noted). My family had no wealth, while his family had generations of wealth. I see public schools and government programs that allowed me to experience the freedom and social mobility America promises. He portrays the government as inherently threatening to personal growth, even while it has played an essential role in his story of moving from middle class to upper class. Paul Ryan is not an entrepreneur, he’s barely worked in the private sector for his entire adult life, and public investment has helped him all along the way. Nonetheless, he tells us now that we must drastically reduce public investment to free the entrepreneurial spirit or risk America’s future. I look back at myself as a kid and I wonder what my future would have looked like in Paul Ryan’s utopian Janesville. Whose interests do Paul Ryan’s ideas serve?
What I find the most compelling are the religious similarities and differences between me and Paul Ryan. I grew up Catholic but no longer identify as such, while Ryan continues to attend the parish just a few blocks from my childhood home back in Janesville. I now teach sociology at a Jesuit college, where I ask my students to read the USCCB’s Economic Justice for All in my section of Social Inequality. When I teach this text, I lead the students in a discussion of the Principal Themes of the Pastoral Letter as outlined by the bishops. Three of these are:
Every economic decision and institution must be judged in light of whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person.
All members of society have a special obligation to the poor and vulnerable.
Society as a whole, acting through public and private institutions, has the moral responsibility to enhance human dignity and protect human rights.
Paul Ryan says he’s Catholic, but his vision of how the government should guide the economy as outlined in Path to Prosperity doesn’t prioritize any of these themes. Instead of privileging the poor and vulnerable, his budget protects the military and the wealthy while taking services away from the poor and vulnerable. R. Scott Appleby and my friend Patrick Q. Mason wrote about this contradiction just today. They draw our attention to a passage from the Compendium of Catholic social doctrine, “The responsibility for attaining the common good, besides falling to individual persons, belongs also to the State, since the common good is the reason the political authority exists.”
It Makes No Sense!
As I look at the ideas that Paul Ryan brings to battle, I see nothing in them that supports the Janesville that helped make me, and him, who we are today. I see nothing in them to suggest he recognizes the privileges he garnered simply by birth into a successful family. I see nothing in his ideas that reflects Catholic social teaching about finding dignity in communities that give preference to the poor and vulnerable. None of this makes any sense to me if I try to think of Paul Ryan as a sincere, thoughtful, bold leader. It makes more sense if I think of him as someone protecting his privilege, or as someone with a poorly formed sociological imagination.