I was poor, but a GOP die-hard: How I finally left the politics of shame I hated government -- even as it was the only thing trying to save me. Here's how, one day, I finally saw the light EDWIN LYNGAR A photo of the author I was a 20-year-old college dropout with no more than $100 in the bank the day my son was born in 1994. I’d been in the Coast Guard just over six months. Joining the service was my solution to a lot of problems, not the least of which was being married to a pregnant, 19-year-old fellow dropout. We were poor, and my overwhelming response to poverty was a profound shame that drove me into the arms of the people least willing to help — conservatives. Just before our first baby arrived, my wife and I walked into the social services office near the base where I was stationed in rural North Carolina. “You qualify for WIC and food stamps,” the middle-aged woman said. I don’t know whether she disapproved of us or if all social services workers in the South oozed an understated unpleasantness. We took the Women, Infants, Children vouchers for free peanut butter, cheese and baby formula and got into the food stamp line. Looking around, I saw no other young servicemen. Coming from the white working class, I’d always been taught that food stamps were for the “others” — failures, drug addicts or immigrants, maybe — not for real Americans like me. I could not bear the stigma, so we walked out before our number was called. Even though we didn’t take the food stamps, we lived in the warm embrace of the federal government with subsidized housing and utilities, courtesy of Uncle Sam. Yet I blamed all of my considerable problems on the government, the only institution that was actively working to alleviate my suffering. I railed against government spending (i.e., raising my own salary). At the same time, the earned income tax credit was the only way I could balance my budget at the end of the year. I felt my own poverty was a moral failure. To support my feelings of inadequacy, every move I made only pushed me deeper into poverty. I bought a car and got screwed on the financing. The credit I could get, I overused and was overpriced to start with. My wife couldn’t get or keep a job, and we could not afford reliable day care in any case. I was naive, broke and uneducated but still felt entitled to a middle-class existence. If you had taken WIC and the EITC away from me, my son would still have eaten, but my life would have been much more miserable. Without government help, I would have had to borrow money from my family more often. I borrowed money from my parents less than a handful of times, but I remember every single instance with a burning shame. To ask for money was to admit defeat, to be a de facto loser. To make up for my own failures, I voted to give rich people tax cuts, because somewhere deep inside, I knew they were better than me. They earned it. My support for conservative politics was atonement for the original sin of being white trash. In my second tour of duty, I grew in rank and my circumstances improved. I voted for George W. Bush. I sent his campaign money, even though I had little to spare. During the Bush v. Gore recount, I grabbed a sign and walked the streets of San Francisco to protest, carrying my toddler on my shoulders. I got emotional, thinking of “freedom.” Sometime after he took office, I watched Bush speak at an event. He talked of tax cuts. “It’s the people’s money,” he said. By then I was making even better money, but I didn’t care about tax cuts for myself. I was still paying little if any income tax, but I believed in “fairness.” The “death tax” (aka the estate tax) was unfair and rich people paid more taxes so they should get more of a tax break. I ignored my own personal struggles when I made political decisions. By the financial meltdown of 2008, I was out of the military and living in Reno, Nevada — a state hard hit by the downturn. I voted libertarian that election year, even though the utter failure of the free market was obvious. The financial crisis proved that rich people are no better than me, and in fact, are often inferior to average people. They crash companies, loot pensions and destroy banks, and when they hit a snag, they scream to be rescued by government largess. By contrast, I continued to pay my oversize mortgage for years, even as my home lost more than half its value. I viewed my bad investment as yet another moral failure. When it comes to voting and investing, rich people make calculated decisions, while regular people make “emotional” and “moral” ones. Despite growing self-awareness, I pushed away reality for another election cycle.