GOP Budget Proposes Gruel Cuts

Cruikshank, "Oliver Twist"

My paternal grandfather, a staunch Illinois Republican, was a huge fan of Charles Dickens, who influenced how he saw the poor. This meant that he was somewhat paternalistic, but paternalism is an improvement over the mean-spiritedness of today’s young rightwingers. Paul Ryan and Scott Walker appear to have walked straight out of Oliver Twist, what with their comparisons of social safety nets to hammocks, their determination to take health care away from millions, their advocacy for humiliating drug testing for welfare recipients (but for no other recipients of government funds), and their attempts to slash the food stamp budget. Mr. Bumble would approve.

Andrew O’Hehir of Salon makes the connection with Dickens although I urge caution if you read his article as it contains a significant factual error regarding Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton. But what O’Hehir says about Oliver Twist is accurate enough, and the parallels with the current GOP House budget proposal are striking:

As Dickens observed in Oliver Twist, in essence a satirical broadside directed at the Poor Laws of his time, the unequal distribution of wealth was understood to demonstrate character and to reflect the dispensation of Providence. Those who fell into poverty or were born into it, like the novel’s hero, clearly lacked moral fiber, and were prone to laziness and ingratitude.

O’Hehir notes how the “sage, deep, philosophical men” on the workhouse’s board of directors discover that paupers like the workhouse too much:

It was a regular place of public entertainment for the poorer classes; a tavern where there was nothing to pay; a public breakfast, dinner, tea and supper all the year round; a brick and mortar elysium, where it was all play and no work.

To solve the problem, they come up with their own version of cutting food stamps.

‘Oho!’ said the board, looking very knowing; ‘we are the fellows to set this to rights; we’ll stop it all, in no time.’ So, they established the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they), of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it. With this view, they contracted with the water-works to lay on an unlimited supply of water; and with a corn-factor to supply periodically small quantities of oatmeal; and issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll of Sundays. 

Initially these measures appear a false economy since the undertaker’s and tailor’s bills go up. Then, however, the poor adjust:

For the first six months after Oliver Twist was removed, the system was in full operation. It was rather expensive at first, in consequence of the increase in the undertaker’s bill, and the necessity of taking in the clothes of all the paupers, which fluttered loosely on their wasted, shrunken forms, after a week or two’s gruel. But the number of workhouse inmates got thin as well as the paupers; and the board were in ecstasies.

For current day legislators, the monetary rewards go to those who will sacrifice the poor in order to finance sizable increases in military spending and tax cuts for the wealthy. In fact, Cotton attended a major meeting with arms manufacturers shortly after attempting to scuttle the president’s negotiations with Iran, and Ryan and Walker are pulling in millions from ultra-conservative billionaires. Think of them caring for America’s vulnerable in the way that Miss Corny cares for Oliver and the other children under her care:

The elderly female was a woman of wisdom and experience; she knew what was good for children; and she had a very accurate perception of what was good for herself. So, she appropriated the greater part of the weekly stipend to her own use, and consigned the rising parochial generation to even a shorter allowance than was originally provided for them. Thereby finding in the lowest depth a deeper still; and proving herself a very great experimental philosopher.

Dickens did social good by shaming people into better behavior. Our young rightwing legislators seem beyond the power of shaming.

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