Paul Ryan Shuns Conservative Media's "Makers And Takers" Rhetoric, But His Policies Still Rely On Those Myths


In The Wall Street Journal, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) disavowed the offensive narrative pushed by conservative media which labels needy Americans as "takers" versus more economically-prosperous "makers." However, Ryan's proposed anti-poverty policies still rely on the right-wing media myth that blames poverty on poor individuals' personal life choices.

Paul Ryan Pens Op-Ed Disavowing "Makers And Takers" Rhetoric

Paul Ryan: "I've Learned I Was Wrong To Talk About 'Makers And Takers.'" In an August 15 opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal, Rep. Paul Ryan expressed his regrets for utilizing the popular conservative talking point framing poverty as a "makers and takers" narrative. Noting that using the phrase shamed those "trying to make something of themselves," Ryan called the phrase both "insensitive" and "ineffective":

That day at the fair was the first time I really heard the way the phrase sounded. Later, I thought about that guy from the Democrats' tent, and eventually I realized: He's right.

Who was a taker? My mom, who is on Medicare? Me at 18 years old, using the Social Security survivor's benefits we got after my father's death to go to college? My buddy who had been unemployed and used job-training benefits to get back on his feet?

The phrase gave insult where none was intended. People struggling and striving to get ahead--that's what our country is all about. On that journey, they're not "takers"; they're trying to make something of themselves. We shouldn't disparage that.

Of course, the phrase wasn't just insensitive; it was also ineffective. The problem I was trying to describe wasn't about our people; it's a philosophy of government that erodes the American Idea. [The Wall Street Journal, 8/15/14]

Conservative Media Have Long Used "Makers And Takers" Phrase To Shame The Poor And Attack The Left

2011: Fox Business Network Ran Week-Long Special On "Makers Vs. Takers." Fox Business Network began using the "makers and takers" frame as early as May of 2011, when they ran a week-long attack on the social safety net titled, "Entitlement Nation: Makers Vs. Takers." The series labeled beneficiaries of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid as "takers." In one segment, Fox Business host David Asman said the series' title "embodies the great divide in this country between the folks who actually make things, and those who actually take what others make."

makers vs. takers logo

[Fox Business Network, May 2011, via Media Matters]

Fox's Gutfeld: Occupy Protesters Are "Takers," Tea Partiers Are "Makers." On The Five in 2011, co-host Greg Gutfeld said that "the Tea Partiers are, in a sense, makers; Occupy Wall Street are takers," adding that the "hardcore activists" in the Occupy movement "want to take your wealth." [Fox News, The Five, 11/7/11, via Media Matters]

2012: Fox Business' Dobbs: Occupy Wall Street Was "Forever Trying To Pit The Makers Against The Takers." In early 2012, while criticizing the children's animated film The Lorax for allegedly "demonizing the so-called one percent and espousing the virtue of green-energy policies," Fox Business host Lou Dobbs said, "Where have we all heard this before? Occupy Wall Street, forever trying to pit the makers against the takers." [Fox Business, Lou Dobbs Tonight, 2/21/12, via Media Matters]

Fox's Bolling: "People Who Are Takers Are Almost More Than 50 Percent Of America." Discussing comments made by radio host Rush Limbaugh, Bolling said on The Five in 2012: "Let's talk about what Rush said. He said it's a group that goes to work every day, works hard, pays their taxes, just wants to be -- wants to have a voice in the way things are going. The problem is that kind of defines the Tea Party. It looks like a conservative. It looks like the Tea Party. The problem is, it's almost not a majority anymore. People who are takers are almost more than 50 percent of America." [Fox News, The Five, 3/22/12, via Nexis]

2013: Writer Warned Of "America's Coming Civil War" Between "Makers And Takers." In a January 2013 opinion piece, Arthur Herman declared that "another civil war is was coming to America between the 'makers and the takers'":

Some have said my warnings about a coming civil war between makers and takers are exaggerated. It's true that Argentina's politicians have been waging class warfare since Juan and Eva Peron-and they aren't fazed when it turns bloody. Obama and the Democrats are relative newcomers to the game. But Argentina reveals who really suffers when those who create a nation's wealth get mugged by those who spend it-as just happened this week in Washington. [, 1/4/13 via Media Matters]

2014: Fox's Bolling: Extending Unemployment Insurance Is "Socialism" That Shifts Money From "A Maker" To "A Taker." On the January 7, 2014, edition of Fox News' The Five, co-host Eric Bolling commented on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty by declaring that that extending unemployment insurance was a form of socialism that shifts money from "a maker" to "a taker." [Fox News, The Five, 1/7/14]

But Ryan's Proposed Policies Still Blame Poverty On The Poor...

Paul Ryan's Op-Ed Promotes Poor-Shaming Anti-Poverty Plan. In the same Wall Street Journal opinion piece that distanced himself from the "makers and takers" phrase, Ryan went on to explain his anti-poverty plan, which in part proposes that individuals would have to sign "contracts" in order to remain eligible for social safety net benefits, such as food stamps. The system would reward impoverished Americans for meeting those contractual goals, while punishing them for failing to meet expectations on a timeline (emphasis added):

Today, we're spending almost $800 billion on 92 federal antipoverty programs -- and yet we have the highest poverty rate in a generation. That's because the solution can't be found in a federal bureaucracy; it lies within individual Americans and the community that surrounds and supports them.

As it stands, we're not empowering people; we're overseeing them. That's got to change. We need to see an individual's problems and potential. Our goal shouldn't be to simply meet their needs; we should help them tap into their talent and achieve their goals.

That's why I've proposed a plan that would reform our poverty programs by creating federal opportunity grants. These grants would consolidate up to 11 programs--such as food stamps, housing assistance and cash welfare -- into one funding stream, and allow states to experiment with different ways of customizing aid. Families in need would have a choice about where and how they get assistance. And this opportunity would come with greater accountability for recipients and states. Individuals would be rewarded for meeting their goals, and states would be required to measure their results. [The Wall Street Journal, 8/15/14]

NY Mag's Annie Lowrey: Ryan's "Condescending" Plan "Threatens To Punish The Poorest And Most Unstable Families For Their Poverty." Annie Lowrey of New York magazine explained that Ryan's proposal is based on the assumption "that the poor somehow want to be poor," noting that the contract proposal assumes that low-income Americans either need the threat of punishment as motivation, or that they are themselves deficient and incapable of success:

[I]t presupposes that the poor somehow want to be poor; that they don't have the skills to plan and achieve and grow their way out of poverty. The truth is that many do have the skills, and what they lack are resources -- say, enough money to pay for a decent daycare for your infant so you can work a full-time job, or cash to get your car fixed so you don't have to take the bus to your overnight gig at Walmart. Ryan is not putting more resources on the table, as far as I can tell, and thus for many families he will not be addressing the root problem.


[I]t threatens to punish the poorest and most unstable families for their poverty and instability. Let's say you're a single mom with five kids. You break your contract. You get "sanctioned" -- a term normally used for money-launderers, terrorists, and narcotics traffickers, by the way. You suffer, and you fall deeper into poverty. But more to the point, your children suffer. [New York, 7/24/14]

...And Ryan's Anti-Poverty Plan Continues To Parrot Conservative Media's Poor-Shaming Rhetoric

Fox's Stuart Varney On The Poor: "Many Of Them Have Things -- What They Lack Is The Richness Of Spirit." Fox Business host Stuart Varney claimed in 2011 that because poor people have "modern conveniences," such as refrigerators and air conditioning, official poverty figures are inaccurate. After he was mocked by comedian Jon Stewart for his poverty-shaming, Varney doubled down on his show, claiming:

VARNEY: The image we have of poor people as starving and living in squalor really is not accurate. Many of them have things -- what they lack is the richness of spirit. That's my opinion. [Fox News, Your World with Neil Cavuto, 7/19/11; Fox Business, Varney & Co., 8/25/11]

Limbaugh: "In Many Cases" Poor People "Have Only Themselves To Blame." Lamenting President Obama's focus on income inequality in the run-up to the 2012 election, radio host Rush Limbaugh asserted that "in many cases, speaking bluntly, the people that don't do well have only themselves to blame. And those who have no control over themselves are the ones we help." He added, "the only limits in this country on anybody's advancement is their own limitation that they place on themselves." [Premiere Radio Networks, The Rush Limbaugh Show, 2/21/14]

Fox's Charles Payne: "Stigma" Can Serve As "Impetus To Get People Off" Food Stamps. Discussing an increase in people signing up for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Fox News contributor and Fox Business host Charles Payne lamented the lack of "stigma" surrounding food stamps. According to Payne, "I know there's a big thing trying to de-stigmatize food stamps, but the good part about the stigma is it actually does serve as an impetus to get people off of it." [Fox News, America's Newsroom, 3/28/13]

Fox News Special Attempted To Make Freeloading Surfer The Face Of Food Stamps. In an attempt to make a surfing freeloader the face of SNAP recipients, a Fox News special profiled Jason Greenslate, "a blissfully jobless California surfer" who has taken advantage of his SNAP benefits. In reality, Greenslate bore no resemblance to the overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients, many of whom are elderly, children, or rely on the program for a short time while looking for work. [Media Matters, 8/9/13; Media Matters, 9/18/13]

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