A Rant: Conservatives, Poverty, and Education

So I recently read “Damnation Island,” by Stacy Horn.

In 1883 a charity worker named Josephine Shaw Lowell wrote a letter to a relative. She wrote:

I find this a depressing but common perspective. I have known many, many, many people in my life who believe that poverty is a moral defect, and the inevitable result of laziness, stupidity, or evil. And I very consistently encounter people who still believe that the best way to fix poverty is the cut people off from charity and welfare so that they will be forced to work for a living. And they describe this as love.

Josephine Lowell spent the next eleven years working with the poor and running charitable institutions. After over a decade of experience, she wrote again, but she had changed her tune:

In this, Lowell, has come to achieve a better understanding of the reality of poverty.

So my question to modern Conservatives is: * “If this lady figured it out over a century ago, what’s your excuse?”*

This is the point that causes me unending frustration. If I had to characterize the key problem of Conservatism, I would point to the absolute inability to reconcile contradictory information. I mean, when I was a Freshman in Psych 101, we learned about the Fundamental Attribution Error (eg poor people are poor because they are inherently lazy and stupid, rather than a victim of understandable or preventable circumstances). So when I hear Conservatives continue to utter the same mistaken ideas, I want to pull my hair out. In my mind, these theories are already so well understood and documented, I find it utterly baffling how anyone could persist in their mistaken understanding. If Josephine Lowell could figure it out a hundred years ago, why are we still having these same arguments today?

I despair of the idea that it is most likely the former. When a Liberal goes to school and learns about well-supported psychological or social theories that explain our cognitive errors, they accept it and try to rectify their thinking. And yet, I hear over and over from Conservative talking heads who insist that college professors have a ‘liberal bias’ to the point that students will assemble ‘watchlists’ of instructors who promote ‘the liberal agenda.’ And it’s not just poverty. It’s gays, or transgenders, or economics, or climate change, or immigration. Over and over and over, these people reject well-supported theories, because facts and conclusions which contradict Conservative thought is a ‘liberal agenda.’

So here’s the thing: The Fundamental Attribution Error tells me that Conservatives must not be inherently wicked, stupid, selfish, or ignorant. Rather, there are likely sound reasons for their misfortunes, which I could better understand through exercising compassion and empathy. For the the life of me, I can’t figure out what that might be. When I see Conservatives and Conservative leaders railing against education, against universities, against any teaching that would contradict the ideas they have already set in their minds, I can’t come to any other conclusion except that of willful ignorance.

You seem to be overlooking one key point: Josephine Lowell actually wanted to help the poor. Do you think someone like Mitch McConnell has ever really wanted to help the poor? He might say something like that as lip service, but all he really wants is to keep his political party in power.

This has nothing to do with “cognitive errors” or his inability to process the facts. He knows exactly what’s happening.

A given condition can have multiple causes. What’s wrong with the expectation that humans have agency and respond to incentives? A safety net is appropriate in a land with surplus production. However, an expectation that people make an effort is not unreasonable.

Even Karl Marx had expectations of the poor. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/From_each_according_to_his_ability,_to_each_according_to_his_needs

For capitalism to succeed, it needs an underclass as a ‘reserve’ labour force. That means leaving folks in a state of either poverty or low employment status.

Marx’s ‘Capital’ might not have been the recipe for a new world order, but it was definitely a descriptor of the capitalist system.

One, of many, reasons could be due to projection. Some conservatives were likely terrible stem students – just didn’t understand, little support at home with their homework, … Also there are some terrible teachers out there (I’ve had a few) that can turn students against subjects just because they were prats. Those students may have had such a hard time with certain teachers it spoiled their interest in the subject completely. We build our views on experiences we had as kids & our relationship we have with our family (or foster families, care homes, church or other youth groups, …). Later, as adults in our mid 20’s, we can reevaluate our paradigm, adjust, prune, add, but our foundation is pretty strong. It takes a lot to overcome 25 years of indoctrination. Even when we find out some of our views are based on lies & fabrications, we can still come up with justifications if those views are paired with people we love & admire.

Edit – I forgot to explain why I used projection as a reason. They may be projecting their own laziness toward stem subjects & applying it to poverty situations.

Religion is a major reason for their attitude.

And at any rate, if they weren’t some mix of “wicked, stupid, selfish, or ignorant” then they* wouldn’t be* conservative in the first place, since in America that’s what the word means; it has nothing to do with conserving anything. But we aren’t supposed to think such things about the right wing, so everyone feels obligated to make up explanations for their behavior that make them look nicer than they are.

Which ironically means the people trying to defend them end up accusing them of being insane, since the alternative is admitting that they know what they are doing.

I think there is also a form of magical thinking that goes like this:

“If poor people are poor because of poor choices, laziness, and immorality then all I have to do to avoid poverty is make good choices, work hard, and be moral. Yay! But if poor people are poor due to bad luck and circumstances beyond their control then… maybe… one day… I might become poor. Oh, no, that’s scary! I’ll believe it’s poor choice/laziness/immorality because that will keep me safe!”

Which works until something bad happens to that person.

And also, if the reason they are poor is because they made poor choices, then why should I make the choice of helping them? They will just keep making poor choices! Whereas if there is at least some randomness factor, “today I help you, tomorrow someone else will hopefully help me” makes much more sense.

Aye, then it’s always “I had bad luck and deserve this, but everyone else doesn’t.”

It’s kind of gross.

Hey, Craig T. Nelson was on food stamps and nobody helped him.

Cite? (Yes, I know we’re in the Pit.) Capitalism is not a zero-sum game. It’s possible for everyone to ‘win’.

There have lately been some studies suggesting that American conservatism might derive from fundamental personality traits, principally, a hyper-sensitivity to the potential of threats from “outsiders.”

Conservatives also value loyalty, order, and respect for authority much more than liberals. And their notion of fairness is based on the idea of identifying who is “deserving.”

So they have a pretty significant mental disorder?

Well, yes, but it seems to afflict some 40 percent of society, so we have to treat it somewhat differently than a run-of-the-mill disorder.

So someone like my mother or 2.sil, who own tons of boxes and tuppers and calendars and books and travel memorabilia is what? Bipolar, or centrist?

I think the authors of that article were projecting a little (just a little). The same objects can be owned by different people for completely different reasons.

  1. I did specify “American conservatism.”

  2. I know you understand statistics, averages, and normal curves better than to use your sister-in-Law as an argument in this matter.

I’d like to see some p.d.f. graphs on some of these liberal.vs.conservative characters. I’d expect to see ordinary bell-shaped type curves rather than a blatantly bimodal curve.

Forcing the poor to go to work is stupid unless you also force businesses to hire them.


We can’t feed all these people, that would only create dependency.

I think you answered your own question: She figured it out after spending over a decade working with the poor and running charitable institutions. Most people haven’t done this.
Also, some Conservatives agree with you that many, if not all, people’s poverty is due to “to economic causes over which they have had no control and which were as much beyond their power to avert”; but they disagree about how best to address those economic causes.