The New Yorker: Paul Ryan, Al Smith, and Getting By In America

I’m kind of blown away by Amy Davidson’s blog post at The New Yorker, which compares the upbringings of the New York governor Al Smith and Romney’s VP pick, Paul Ryan. Davidson draws a link between the two by showing how they both pulled themselves up by their bootstraps to get ahead in life, but for Ryan–a discipline of Ayn Rand’s objectivism who advocates for stripping government of all its social safety nets–doing so would not have been possible without the Social Security benefits he received after his father’s early death.

“There are, of course, still plenty of desperately poor people in America today. Many of them ended up or have stayed that way, despite hard work and ambition, because, like Smith’s family, they were destroyed financially by uninsured medical costs. But even without the cushion of (presumably) health insurance and his family’s basic financial stability, Ryan and his mother would not have had to make the wrenching choices Smith and his mother did. Ryan received Social Security survivors’ benefits as a minor: “It was a tough time for our family, and Social Security was there to help us when we needed the help,” Ryan told the Associated Press in 2005. Had his mother’s income ever fallen below a certain point, she would have been able to receive Social Security support before her retirement age, too. This is not to look down on that support in any way; far from it. (My own child has received such benefits since the death of his father, also at an early age.) It is possible that Ryan’s father, who was fifty-five and a high earner, paid more in than his son got out; but the point is that the social insurance—the social compact—was there whether he did or not.

Ryan, at any rate, was able save his social-security benefits to help pay his tuition at Miami University of Ohio—a public college that itself has survived hard times due to taxpayer support. His mother went back to school to learn interior decorating, and Paul kept working summer jobs, but there was never any question about whether he would stay in school.”

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