Confessions of a classical liberal

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I majored in Social Work in college, which, at the time, was the most liberal major in my state university. The first year I was eligible to vote was 1972 but I was off serving my country and wasn’t all that interested in politics anyway.

But in 1976, I was out of college, serving as a local pastor in the United Methodist Church, a liberal denomination even then, and cast my ballot for Jimmy Carter.

I confess that I was also swayed by the person and rhetoric of John F. Kennedy, a liberal by the standards of the day, who got us to the moon (though he did not live to see it), backed the Soviets out of Cuba, and famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”

I believed in the Civil Rights Movement and thought that women should get equal pay for equal work. It didn’t trouble me if blacks and whites dated or married, and I believed that the truly disadvantaged among us needed the help of the government to come out of poverty. I supported Pell Grants for college students.

I was a classical liberal. “’Classical liberalism’ is the term used to designate the ideology advocating private property, an unhampered market economy, the rule of law, constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and of the press, and international peace based on free trade.” And then I became a social worker in a state agency.

The first part of my short 2-and-a-half-year social work experience resulted in my genuinely helping people. I assisted people in getting glasses, dental care, pointed them in the right direction to get help with food stamps and housing, and became knowledgeable about what community services were offered.

I also had the task of re-certifying women with children at home to receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC. Here is where I began to question the wisdom of those who had instituted certain of these policies.

Back then, this is how it worked: If a man and wife had three children and both parents were out of work, if the family applied for what was commonly called “welfare,” they were not eligible. Why? Because the able-bodied father was in the home.

If, however, the father left the home, if my memory serves me correctly, the wife and two children could receive a whopping $115.00 a month. But that wasn’t all. They could get Medicaid (free health insurance), free meals at school, Food Stamps, help with housing or very cheap Section 8 government housing, and more. They would still be impoverished but at least they could eat, have access to a doctor, and have someplace to stay.

Of course, the price was the breaking up of the family. Sometimes, the father would be absent during the day but try to sneak back home at night but, if he was found out, he could be criminally charged with welfare fraud. If there was a man in the home that was not the father of the children, well, that was just fine. So, the price also included the state sanctioning of immorality.

Not all of the women wanted to be on AFDC but, if they got a job, even a part-time job, they had to report their earnings and that resulted in a reduction of their welfare benefits. If they didn’t report their income, and were found out, then they could be charged with welfare fraud and lose their benefits altogether. They became trapped in the system.

A good number of the mothers discovered that, if they wanted to increase their welfare payments, all they had to do was have another child or three. And, if a child turned 18 and was no longer eligible, then, again, just have a replacement child.

After about six months, I transferred into Child Protective Services and moved to another county. CPS workers have a difficult, thankless, and almost impossible job. I tell people that, on that job, I was screamed at, cussed at, spit at, punched at, stabbed at, shot at, and had my life and the lives of my wife and children threatened, all of which prepared me for working with church boards.

I helped put people in jail. I regret none of that. When a parent prostitutes their own children, starves them to the point that a toddler will eat cat manure, commits incest, burns a 7-year-old girl down to the shin bone, or just plain kills them, then these monsters can rot in jail.

But most of the time I tried to work with families to help them either keep the kids in the home or help them get their children back if the state took them away. I felt we did good work, but it was heart-breaking work and filled with stress. It didn’t help that the caseload was high.

The PCS workers in my office had an average of 50 cases. We had to do a home visit at least once a month. That doesn’t sound so bad but when you add in the paperwork, the time spent in court, the visits to neighbors, workplaces, and schools, the required continuing education, and the fact that some cases required your presence several times a week, it was too much.

Once, I went through my cases and determined that 15 of them were stable and the families no longer needed services. I closed them and put them on my supervisor’s desk. About an hour later, they were back on my desk with orders to re-open them. I protested, “But they no longer need services!”

“Look,” the supervisor said, “there are four PCS workers in the office. If everybody closed 15 cases, that would be 60 closed cases. The normal authorized workload is 50. That means one of you will lose your job and you are the junior worker in the office. Understand?” I did. The cases were re-opened, and I learned a bit more about how the government worked. I began to undergo an ideological transformation.

Over time, the role and direction of the liberal changed and, when it did, it left me behind. Liberalism became something so unrecognizable that it had to be given a new name. “Progressive” is the word used now and preferred by those on the Left.

In my estimation, if John F. Kennedy were alive today and if he held to his original convictions, he would be a Conservative. So, I am still a JFK liberal and I am also a conservative. I am not quite a Republican, but I am very far from being a Progressive. So, I guess I am an Independent.

I think that there are others like me but, especially over the past few years, the extremes have garnered the attention and the press. In fact, if one is not an extreme Right Winger or an extreme Leftist, it seems they have no real place in the dialogue.

I have opposed abortion and incurred the anger of the Left. I was opposed to the War in Iraq and was lambasted by some on the Right. But that’s fine. I state and vote my convictions and then just move forward. That is part of what it means to be an American.

[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). During the crisis, the church is live streaming at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays at http://www.facebook.com/cctksharpsburg/ He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South(www.midsouthdiocese.life). He may be contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]

3 COMMENTS

  1. Rev. Epps mistakenly applies political labels to outcomes that represent people merely responding to incentives. Welfare recipients must break up families because they are rewarded for singleness. Social services fail to close cases because they lose revenue.

    As usual, Epps presents a one sided argument and seems incapable of grasping the overall principle that he disparages . He could have just as easily cited military contractors who obtain a $500,000,000 contract and find that they only used $450,000,000; so they inflate the costs to equal the full amount of the contract. Any number of cases can be presented from any political position.

    Shortsighted politicians from both sides of the aisle pass legislation that incentivizes reactions that ultimately work against intended outcomes. It seems that shortsighted clergymen complicate this rational reaction to incentives with broad political ideological explanations instead of simple behavioral principles.

    • On the social welfare system I speak from experience. I have no inside experience with the military industrial complex so I have little to say on that score. And yes, the welfare system, at least back in the day, incentivized broken families and immorality. Thank you for making my point.