This year I didn’t complain when I had to pay income tax. For the first time in my life I understood the importance of paying taxes and I wish that more people had the opportunity to do so. There are a lot of reasons why our tax system is as warped as it is. I would like to think that the money I contributed to our tax system went to SNAP. I would like to explain why.
I’ve shared my experience of losing a job, changing my political party, and working at Walmart for a little above minimum wage. The consequences of the Great Recession have been real and devastating and often I meet people who were changed by it.
My family and I are one of millions of stories. When I came back from upstate New York “moping like a puppy”—at least that’s always how I describe it. We settled back in Ogden—my hometown. Though many Utahns poke fun of it, I feel a deep attachment to it. There isn’t anywhere else (besides a few other places) that I would rather live. I learned my lesson and I promised myself that I would never leave.
Perhaps it’s the diversity that I admire about Ogden. Historically, Ogden was known as “Junction City.” With the railroad, different cultures and peoples were everywhere. I am thankful that I was exposed young to a different world than most Utahns don’t see. Even in Ogden, there is a dividing line—and if you live in Ogden you know where it's at. If you live below Harrison Blvd., you live in “the ghetto.” If you live above Harrison Blvd., you live in the “good part of town.” It’s that easy.
With the little money I had left over from my retirement account I found a basement apartment below Harrison Blvd. I was in “the ghetto” and despite everything I felt blessed and watched over. For the next six months I struggled to find work. I still remember pulling into a local call center where I thought that I could easily get a job. I was shocked to find that the parking lot was empty because the jobs were non-existent. Finally, one day I found a job that was one hour away in Logan, Utah. I worked as hard as I could even though I knew it would never lead anywhere.
Our ward that we lived in was made up of over twenty service missionary communities from the outlining communities. It was led by a seventy-year old full-time bishop who served the community in a ward west of Harrison Blvd. He exemplified charity and reminded me of the words of Joseph F. Smith who said, “Charity, or love, is the greatest principle in existence. If we can lend a helping hand to the oppressed, if we can aid those who are despondent and in sorrow, if we can uplift and ameliorate the condition of mankind, it is our mission to do it, it is an essential part of our religion to do it' (in Conference Report, Apr. 1917, 4). When we feel love for God's children, we are given opportunities to help them in their journey back to His presence" (Ensign, Nov 2006, 97–99).”
He worked tirelessly in his old age to shepherd over our ward that had been hit hard by the Great Recession. When someone needed their roof fixed, he found a way to fix it. When someone was in need of a new furnace, he found it. When a widow needed a food, he sent the relief society president over to place it. When a visit had not been made, he did it. Our bishop and his team of service missionaries cared for the inner-city Ogden wards during the Great Recession. I count it as a blessing and feel that I grew spiritually more during this time than any other time. I learned a lot about people, humanity, and how to be an individual with compassion.
I was called as a ward mission leader while living in our Hobbit Hole Apartment. I did my best to serve others, knocking on doors with missionaries, attending weekly meetings, and meeting with our dear bishop on a regular basis. I also had the opportunity to serve many people who were down on their luck. It was difficult for most of us in the ward and yet I felt a real camaraderie because we were in it together.
Despite having a job, a college degree, and a sunny attitude, I was having difficulties sustaining my family. Paying a full tithe was a difficult and impossible task. I was too proud to go to the bishop to ask for help. When Christmas rolled around, our family was literally bankrupt, and like so many families we were finding it difficult to even live paycheck to paycheck.
I feared going into see our kind bishop, too nervous and humiliated to see if he glanced at the meager amount of tithing I had paid. Having only made $20,000 that year, I only had contributed $300 and it wasn’t because I wasn’t “faithful.” I was faithful and I had served and loved the ward and people and church more than I ever had. It didn't seem right that a father and mother like me could have their temple recommends taken away because they couldn't contribute more.
“Brother Nelson, how can I help you and your family?”
“This has been a very difficult year. I don’t know what I’ve done wrong. I just don’t have enough money to make a full tithe. I’ve tried my best to find a good job to contribute more, but it’s really tough right now. My goodness I’m a Republican. I've been taught that going to the government and the Church isn't right. I'm a giver, not a taker.”
Our kind bishop rolled his eyes, and seriously said, “I want to let you on a little secret. Not everyone votes for the Republican Party in this city, me included. Your family has contributed to the Church in countless ways. I am going to put you in contact with a good brother who works for the State. He is going to make sure that you and your family are taken care of. I’m also going to make sure that you get a food order. Brother Nelson, your job is to take care of your family.”
I was stunned. Our kind bishop was a registered Democrat. I was waiting for him to take away my temple recommend and rip it up. Instead, he signed a new one and said, “Now after meeting with a member of the Stake President (who was also a Democrat, I learned years later) I want you and your wife to put this thing to good use.”
The next day our kind bishop brought over two gift cards for $300 so that we were able to buy Christmas. The same day a kind brother stopped by our house to give us guidance and advice on how to sign up for decent healthcare for our child and SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.)
I wasn’t a loafer. I wasn’t lazy. I wasn’t a welfare king. I was an American Mormon stuck in a bad situation. To this day I’m eternally grateful for a good bishop and the American government for saving my life. My feelings and experience towards poverty and those unfortunate changed after attending our inner-city Ogden ward. I was one of those who used the system not only to save my life, but to take care of my own family. My feeling is that there are many members who are no different than me.
Too often in our ward councils in Utah members like to gloat their Republican credentials. I’ve heard many openly bash the government and “those who use the system.” Many do a good job at repeating Fox News talking points and propaganda spread from many main leaders and talking heads of the Republican Party. I know, I used to be one. But when the real and serious issues are discussed, the conversation usually turns to how we as members can facilitate and help our members through government. Often the conversation goes like this, “I know Brother Jones [made-up name] is suffering from severe depression, and has no food in his refrigerator. If there is anyone who needs help from social services, surely it should be him. What can we do to connect him with someone from social services?”
Connections between church and government happen all the time and yet we Mormons are sometimes afraid to have a grown up conversation when it comes to this topic. We are too afraid to admit that it takes the Church and government working together to alleviate poverty. It happened for instance in Salt Lake City with a kind bishop who has helped his members sign up for Obamacare. It happens to members who like my family, survive off of food from SNAP. It happens when good members from our church, along with other churches come together to propose a way to get rid of alleviate homelessness in Utah. We Mormons are changing the conversation and raising practical ideas to complex issues. As my kind bishop explained to me in private conversation, “The best thing that a bishop can do is to be the meeting place in a pair of scissors. The Church and Government work best when they are like a pair of scissors. The job of a bishop and ward should be to direct those who are in need to services that will benefit, support, and sustain families and individuals. We are all doing well when poverty is alleviated and people are able to take care of themselves.”
The Great Recession changed my paradigm. Experience living west of Harrison Blvd. changed the way I view poverty and social programs. Instead of complaining about the government and throwing out bombastic talking points from Fox News, perhaps it’s time that we Latter Day Saints admit that many ideas put forward by many conservative Republicans are not sustainable and practical. Perhaps, it’s time that we look for better solutions that have a better chance of working and achieving the goals of less income inequality and poverty. I came to my own conclusions the day I walked down to the courthouse to change my party affiliation.