The difference between rich and poor often isn’t as much the money as it about the willingness to do what it takes to get it. That’s why some Congressmen who were poor or middle class when they got elected are rich when they leave office.
Take House Speaker Paul Ryan for example.
Ryan was the scion of an influential family in Wisconsin. His greatgrandfather founded a large earth-moving company, his grandfather was U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin and his father was a successful attorney. He was solidly middle class.
Ryan likes to tell stories about how tough his family had it after his father died when Ryan was 16 and his mother went back to college. He flipped burgers and received Social Security survivor benefits until he was 18 years old, Ryan recounts. What he doesn’t say much about is that unlike many with lesser means, Ryan didn’t have to spend his Social Security check to live. His father left an estate of nearly a half-million dollars, so instead of spending his survivor benefits, he saved that money to pay for out-of-state tuition at Miami University of Ohio.
Then, while still in college, Ryan became close with a conservative professor who recommended him as an intern in the office of Wisconsin Senator Bob Kasten and Ryan began the process of getting more money.
On graduation, he became an aide to the same Senator Kasten. Then, when Kasten lost to Democrat Russ Feingold, Ryan used his political capital to jump to a job as a speechwriter for a conservative think tank run by archconservatives William Bennett and Jack Kemp.
All the while, Ryan was gathering influence, friends and money.
At age 28 he was elected to Congress with a net worth of more than $382,000, and for the next 20 years, Paul Ryan was a man on a mission.
• He cut taxes for the rich.
• He cut benefits for the poor.
• He tried to privatize Medicare.
• He cut future increases in Social Security benefits.
• He tried to raise the retirement age to 70.
Now, the man who became Speaker of the House at age 45 is retiring at age 48 with an estimated net worth of more than $7 million.
And 13 months later, at age 50, he will begin drawing a taxpayerfunded pension of $85,000 a year.
Compare that to what someone who isn’t a Congressman can expect. The average Social Security benefit for all retired workers is just $16,848 a year, according to the Social Security Administration. The average survivor benefit for a widowed mother with two children is $33,252 a year.
Ryan was able to save his survivor benefits. How many families made up of a widowed mother with children can say the same?
And keep in mind that the earliest anyone can receive Social Security retirement benefits is age 62 and they have to wait until age 66 to collect full benefits. They can’t receive maximum benefits until age 70.
While Ryan will get $85,000 per year to fly-fish and pad his wallet while he travels the speaking circuit for those whose bidding he did in Congress, a Letcher County resident who shares Ryan’s birthday will have another 16 years to work before they get their meager Social Security benefit of less than a fifth of Ryan’s retirement.
At 50, the average Letcher County resident is either still working or receiving disability payments. His or her average per capita earnings is just $17,983 a year, less than a quarter of the amount Ryan will receive from his taxpayer-funded pension.
Ryan is illustrative of what wrong with Congress in general, and with current Republicans in Congress in particular. He has never had to make his living outside of politics, and he has never really had to struggle, despite his tale of troubled financial times after his father’s death.
But don’t dare criticize his efforts to make the poor poorer and the rich richer, especially if you work in Congress. The chaplain of the House of Representatives, Father Patrick Conroy, prayed in the House that members keep those who are struggling in mind when they voted on the tax cut bill last fall. Instead, the bill, which Ryan pulled out all stops to pass, focused on tax cuts for the rich.
Last week Ryan asked for the priest’s resignation because he “wasn’t meeting the pastoral needs” of the membership.
Ryan has projected an image of someone who cares for those less fortunate while he has actually been busy yanking the rug out from under them.