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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

My friend Steve Strieker, who teaches in Janesville, Wisconsin, recently wrote this for his blog. I think it is very fine.

Here is a link to his blog:   http://oneteachersperspective.blogspot.com/

A Twisted Tale of Two Janesvillians: Paul Ryan and Me

Like Mitt Romney’s running mate, Representative Paul Ryan, I am in my early 40’s and live in Janesville, Wisconsin with my wife and three kids. Purportedly, Rep. Ryan likes the Pack, Spotted Cow, brats, Wisconsin cheese, and the great outdoors--like most Wisconsinites and me. Similar to Ryan, I am loved by my family and generally well liked by my colleagues and others. I, too, serve ably the People of my community and am full of big rambling ideas related to socioeconomic reform.

While I don’t know Rep. Ryan personally, our histories overlap with Irish ancestry, tours of duty at McDonalds, long-time interests in politics, and short (unsuccessful) stints at soccer. Further connected, Rep. Ryan and I both grew up in small midwest towns, attended Catholic schools, and served as altar boys. Most coincidental, Paul Ryan lost his father to a heart attack at a young age--just like me. We are two Janesvillians with somewhat similar stories.

Despite our parallel stories and a shared hometown, Paul Ryan and I have never crossed paths. This is understandable. Ryan lives on the eastside of Janesville. I live on the westside. He hangs out at the country club. I hang out at my exclusive home. His children attend a private school. My kids go to public schools. Ryan was born into modest wealth, married into more wealth, and now fraternizes with the very affluent. I was born into poverty, married a teacher, and consort with mostly middle class folks.

Before the anonymous McCarthyites start attacking me again as a communist and accusing me of class warfare, I’d like to point out that I do not begrudge Rep. Ryan’s fortunate rise to fortune. In contrast, it is Rep. Ryan who begrudges my professional pay as a public educator in Wisconsin. Ryan has followed the party line and praises Gov. Walker’s cuts to public educators’ pay and benefits.   

It is at this juncture that Paul Ryan’s life and my life greatly diverge. We apparently view our own stories in nearly opposite ways. For Ryan, government services are an obstacle to individual freedom and financial growth. Laissez-faire capitalism is a moral system that protects individual freedoms, according Ryan’s favorite thinker, Ayn Rand. Never mind that Ryan was the beneficiary of an inheritance and his father’s social security benefits--which helped subsidize his college education. Ryan must fit his story into a Rand novel. Thus, Ryan ostensibly sees his upper-class status as a moral product of his hard work and persistence in navigating America’s free market system.

For me, government services, along with private industry, liberate many individuals and are an integral component of modern economies. Economic systems, like laissez-faire capitalism, are amoral and consequently do not have ethical feelings for winners and losers. In contrast to Ryan, I find it immoral to glorify an amoral system that results in too many losers. Like the Catholic Church taught me, consideration for the poor is a matter of social justice. My own value system finds it reckless to leave social justice to chance and a devout faith in the free market. Well-funded, human-designed government services inject morality into our amoral economic system.

The tale of my family in the aftermath of my father’s death is a great example of the liberating power of government services. While hard work and part-time employment have always been part of our lives--my mom, my seven siblings, and I were largely freed from the financial quagmire following our dad’s death through a combination of charitable donations, extended family support, government-managed social security benefits, food stamps, free school lunches, pell grants, work study, and college loans.

Sadly, my dad, like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, was worth more dead than alive. Our family always teetered on poverty, but all eight children have managed to move the next generation to the middle class--thanks, in large part, to the social support provided in the wake of our father’s death. From my middle class perch, I would be a hypocrite to think otherwise. I am grateful for growing up in a family, community, and country willing to commit resources to my family’s success in an amoral economy.

As an educator in a public school with a student poverty rate of nearly 50% (and rising), I see continuously how lucky my family was. Admittedly, the work I do with students of low-income most often has a marginal impact on their future success. P.L. Thomas’ important work, Ignoring Poverty in the U.S., confirms what I have often thought--socioeconomic matters matter for students. Thomas’ research highlights how “all evidence points overwhelmingly to out-of-school factors dwarfing both teacher and school quality” in determining student success.

Convincingly, Thomas turns the current school reform game on end. School reformers of many types--including Mitt Romney--mistakenly believe they can best help students overcome poverty by radically reforming education. In reality, the evidence indicates reducing poverty best reforms public education and most helps students succeed. My tale of social support lands me squarely in the camp of the Social Context Reformers--who, as Thomas writes, “call for genuine reform that addresses the staggering inequity in both U.S. society and public schools.”

Paul Ryan may live in my hometown, but his views are far from the realities of Janesville. After getting the VP nod from Romney, Ryan proudly espoused that, in America, “We promise equal opportunity, not equal outcomes.” With his children in parochial schools, maybe Ryan is insulated from the needy Janesville youth I teach and see at my own children’s public schools. Most of Janesville’s students have far less equal opportunity compared to his children (and mine).

Ryan’s worldview further allows him to fantasize that “as more Americans work hard, take risks, succeed, more people will prosper, more communities will benefit.” Hard work and risk taking does not always cut it. Ryan’s "work hard" advice is an insensitive comment for the thousands of hardworking General Motors workers in Janesville who lost their jobs with the Janesville plant closing. These auto workers did not cause our recent recession or make the decisions that led to GM’s downfall. In fact, most to blame for the Great Recession were risk-taking investors--who built a housing bubble that ultimately burst the amoral American economy, which left too many Janesvillians losers in Ryan’s free market game.

Ryan seems to have, what Thomas calls, an “idealized view of our culture and our enduring faith in rugged individualism” which blinds him from the realities of social mobility in the United States. A recent Pew study confirms that “those born at the top and bottom of the income ladder are likely to stay there as adults. More than 40 percent of Americans raised in the bottom quintile of the family income ladder remain stuck there as adults, and 70 percent remain below the middle.” Ryan’s idealism prohibits him from seeing the plausibility of financial inequity failing to meet the American promise of equal opportunity.

By most accounts, Paul Ryan’s beliefs are well meaning. However, history is filled with many well-meaning reformers who have messed up the lives of millions. Even though we share a hometown and many similar life experiences, this Janesvillian cannot support Paul Ryan’s run for the vice presidency. I suspect the majority of Janesville and Rock County residents, who voted against Ryan’s comrade, Gov. Walker, in the recent recall election, also feel the same way.