Becoming less politically conservative

Pentax ME, 50mm f/2 SMC Pentax-M, Kodak Tri-X 400, 2012

People came and went at my previous church as they lived fluid and, at times, volatile lives. Families would move suddenly, and we’d never see them again.

When this family left us, at least they got to say goodbye. One Sunday this fellow let me know that he lost his job and could no longer pay the rent. They needed to move to another state to live with family while they figured out what to do. They were leaving that afternoon.

I remember another family, a single mom with three kids, who rented a house across the street from the church. Their last few years had been turbulent, the mom told me, and she needed to move several times. The mom wanted desperately to create a stable life for her kids, but found it elusive. Then we didn’t see them a couple Sundays in a row. The pastor walked over to see how they were doing to find the house empty.

Through many of the people at that church, I came in contact with generational poverty. I saw how incredibly hard it was for them to make their lives better.

As a young adult I was a strong conservative. I agreed that it was important to limit assistance to people in need so that they didn’t grow dependent on it — give them a hand up, not a handout. The idea that people could spend their lives on government assistance bothered me a lot. I believed that most people receiving assistance were happy to let the government support them.

At that church I encountered people who used and gamed the system. But most people wanted better lives and were willing to work for it. Trouble was, their lives had paper thin margins. One wrong move, one bit of bad luck, was all it took to wipe out months or years of forward progress. One small unexpected expense could set off a cascade of crises that could end in homelessness.

These people needed outside help to keep succeeding. The church could do only so much, as we lacked resources. We could occasionally catch someone up on back rent, or buy groceries, or pay to keep the heat on, or cover a car repair. We regularly coached and advised, and connected them to other helpful resources. But we couldn’t do anything systemic or sustained for them. They needed ongoing help so that setbacks did not cascade into crises. Only agencies with sufficient experience, scale, and means could provide this kind of help. Government has this scale and means.

That’s not to say that only government can help, or that government help is best. I saw how limited that help could be and how government red tape often overwhelmed or tripped up recipients. Sometimes that help even placed barriers to further success in their lives, often in the form of a benefit going away at a certain income threshold that didn’t make up for the loss of the benefit.

I just no longer believe the conservative talking points about poverty, which seem to me to boil down to “people need to just pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” When you’re in this kind of poverty, you need ongoing help or you’re on the hill with Sisyphus.

I really liked this family. The father was kind and gentle, and good to talk to. His kids were good natured and well behaved. I missed them after they were gone. I missed a lot of people after they were gone. I didn’t get to say goodbye to most of them.

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17 responses to “Becoming less politically conservative”

  1. Fred M Avatar
    Fred M

    I’ve followed a similar trajectory in life. Almost all the things I was taught to believe by my radically conservative family have turned out not to be true. Most of them don’t stand up to even superficial scrutiny. What I have learned is that double standards or paradoxes are incredibly illuminating. I’ve developed a keen nose for them and continue to scrutinize both what I see in the world outside myself as well as my inner life, because where there’s cake and eating it too, or a vague sense that the explanation for things is inadequate, there’s a way into understanding the true nature of what’s going on. Sometimes the real answer is “this is a nuanced situation” but more often, it’s turned out to be about power for some group or individual, plain and simple.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It’s a challenging thing, because power is actually important for getting things done. So is compromise, but you will never get away from power being necessary. Power being the end in and of itself, or power wielded for selfish gain, are the problem.

  2. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    I look back on all the experiences I’ve had in life, and like to tell people your viewpoints on things change based on the breath and depth of those experiences. I’ve always been a liberal voter, but find the opposite happening, I’m getting a little more conservative, not a lot, but a little; certainly not enough to ever vote right wing, tho.

    I could write a whole entry myself on how I feel about this, but it’s not my blog. I will say this about your entry. The work market has changed so much in the last 50 years, that long term employment is near impossible, and valuable employment for those without ever improving skills is nonexistent. In addition, depending on the amount of jobs available in your marketplace, vs. the amount of people looking for jobs, you’ll be lucky to stay employed much after your mid 50s, and lucky to make a decent income after that. If you’re single like me, good luck. Apartment rents are sky rocketing, houses unaffordable without two incomes. I managed my substandard income well enough to have a little nest egg, but may have to live in dire circumstances or worse in about ten years, if I’m still alive!

    There are people I know that live far better than I do, who’ve made less and done less in their lives, because they qualify for govt. assistance apartments. I miss that qualifying threshold by about 1500 a year. This was my fathers complaint his whole life: the lower middle class in many cases does not qualify for any sort of program to improve their situation, and are working long and hard to maintain on the razors edge of keeping their heads above water. Meanwhile, there are those that have had zero direction in their lives, stumbled through work situations without any dedication, and get to live better than I do? This is the type of thing that has created the neo-con working class that put the horror of Trump in office.

    So here’s what we have going on. One one side, we have conservative business people from well to do suburban families, who were born on third base and think they hit a home run, under paying me for professional services over the years, and worked me like a rented mule on salary for 60 hours a week. They also want to take my social security away and give it to their stock market investment pals (when the stock market was never meant for everyone in America to invest in), and make it almost impossible for me to even survive. They want to fire me over 50 years old, make it impossible for me to get re-employed due to ageism, and raise the retirement age so the gap between when I lose my job, and when I can get social security, expands. What they really want is that the minute I’m not making them money, they want to take me behind the barn and shoot me.

    On the other side, we have people that have never made a correct decision on what to do in their lives, never studied to get skills, had 4 or 5 kids they had zero possibility of affording and raising correctly, and at too young an age (and when families with two working professionals are struggling to afford two kids), have an expectation that they should be supported by my tax money?

    I don’t know Jim, I don’t know.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You raise another valuable point about govt. assistance: the people slightly above the cap for a program are not materially better off than the people slightly below that cap, just based on income — but they are materially worse off because they don’t qualify for that program.

  3. Brian Purdy Avatar
    Brian Purdy

    Your post touched my heart, Jim. Heart-break and anger dominate my emotions in swift succession. The richest one or two percent in our fabulously wealthy countries — those who are obscenely wealthy — are up to their necks in the wrong-doing that puts worthy and deserving people behind the economic and social eight-ball. Those people need to consult their consciences, see themselves for the parasites they are and mend their filthy ways. Even a tithe of what they have locked away would make a world-altering difference.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Bottom line, you’re right that 10% — even 1% — of what the uber wealthy have locked away would be a game changer.

  4. DougD Avatar

    Since I’m not American, I see that as the lie of the American Dream: Anyone can make it if they just work hard and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It is possible, but if you look at the numbers it is generally a lie. The US has one of the worst levels of socioeconomic mobility, despite being “the land of opportunity”.

    I just ache for all these people who have poor education and no margin for error or bad luck, and I always remember the parable of the barns. I love paying my taxes, although I know a lot of it is wasted I also know that a lot of it goes to good use. And that’s a lot better than nothing.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      A major feature of the US is that you can succeed wildly here, more wildly than in other Western countries. A consequence of that feature is that you can fail abysmally here. Another consequence is that it’s harder to be poor here than in other Western countries.

      I’m open to paying more in taxes for effective government programs to improve the lives of our least fortunate.

      1. tbm3fan Avatar

        Don’t overlook the fact that in order to succeed wildly here that many times a good education is the base. Problem is a good education starts with the 1st grade on through high school and then college. In this day and age, where the U.S. is a wealthy country, many still do not get past high school which puts them into a dead end scenario. The college is totally out of the question for many others due to cost. Just think I went to SDSU in the 70’s for $89 a semester which is $467 today but SDSU is around $4060 a semester today. I went to UC Berkeley in 77-81 and each year of professional school was $750 which is $2221.00 today. However the program is over $20,000. I had no loans. Many families could easily afford a State University in the 70’s, on one income, but not today. So one important part of the socioeconomic factors that play into one’s success in life and they aren’t very fair or even.

        Me, I am socially liberal but fiscally conservative. However, one thing I have learned about cars which is if you try to cheap out on maintenance of your car if will one day bite you in the ass and cost you way more. The same is true of people in many ways and will cost you far more in the future versus what they could have added under better circumstances. Shortsightedness never pays…

        1. Andy Umbo Avatar
          Andy Umbo

          BTW, UWM in Milwaukee was $265 a semester in the early 70s, for a total of about $800 a year including books. This was an easy sum to make working summer jobs, and not even for the whole summer, so you still got time off. Want to know what happened? Reagan defunded govt. support of colleges. Once again, when you follow the crumbs and money back, it’s Republican malfeasance. I remember reading articles back in the day about republicans working to ensure that college was going to remain for the wealthy, unless you really struggled to make it happen. Another thing? In my era, parents on the whole, did NOT fund their kids college, they didn’t have the money. Kids worked like hell in the summer to afford it (at 2 bucks an hour minimum wage). In Milwaukee, about 10% of any of the people I knew in college had parental financial input.

  5. Kodachromeguy Avatar

    “the conservative talking points about poverty” Oh, Jim, you should spend a month here with me in Mississippi. The entire state political machine revolves around abusing the poor and keeping them down by withholding Medicare, adequate education, and repairing infrastructure. But it’s always their fault because they did not pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The ultimate irony is this hurts poor whites also.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Has the state political machine made it as hard to end up voted out in Mississippi as the state machine has here in Indiana?

      Here, we keep electing people who don’t care, or actively work to undermine, the lives of the lowest classes. But gerrymandering has ensured that these people will continue to be elected.

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        Ditto , Wisconsin…gerrymandered to keep Republicans in, never took the Medicare expansion money when states a lot redder than here did. Refuse govt. aid programs, all to curry favor with the worst, racist, ”Koch Brothers” republicans, hoping to get a ride in the national theater when the republicans dominate, and yet in the past, the poor Wisconsin rubes are laughed at behind closed doors in D. C. —-T.

  6. brandib1977 Avatar

    Thank you for this, Jim. Many people would let go of their political ideologies if only they had a chance to get to know the humans behind the talking points.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes, ideology generally doesn’t survive contact with reality.

  7. J P Avatar

    I wonder if the problem is conservatism as it was defined for much of postwar America. Worshiping the God of efficiency has resulted in small business being replaced by big business, which has been getting free reign to send jobs offshore. This has coincided with big government taking on more and more responsibilities to the point that it has become incompetent in mostly all of them.

    I think it is time to consider that both modern conservatism and modern liberalism have been failures. But both have very powerful entrenched interests.

    I think it is time for an older style of conservatism that promotes sustainable communities where multiple generations of families can flourish through locally owned enterprises. The extended family has always been the best safety net, but we have a 75 year history of sabotaging the multi-generational family in this country by encouraging their break – up by moving people around for efficiency and success of the individual.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      There’s a lot of truth in what you’re saying. It’s not the whole explanation, but it’s a major pillar of it.

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