Ben Carson, Tasked With Helping the Poor, Believes Poverty Is 'a State of Mind'

Poverty is largely “a state of mind”, housing secretary Ben Carson has claimed, dismaying observers who had modest hopes for his tenure.

Carson, the neurosurgeon who heads the agency charged with helping low-income Americans gain access to affordable housing, told Sirius XM radio: “You take somebody who has the right mindset, you can take everything from them and put them on the street, and I guarantee in a little while they’ll be right back up there.”

He went on: “And you take somebody with the wrong mindset, you can give them everything in the world, they’ll work their way back down to the bottom.”

Poverty and homelessness experts were quick to condemn the remarks.

“Every time he says something like this it suggests to me that the mindset of the secretary is just completely out of line with the mission of he department that he’s been selected to run,” Fred Karnas, a senior housing and urban development (HUD) official in the Clinton and Obama administrations, told the Guardian.

Karnas said he had had felt “cautious optimism” when Carson was confirmed – former colleagues of his had met Carson to discuss redressing housing discrimination, and expected pushback, but the conversations went well. But he said he was “appalled” by Carson’s latest remarks. The real roots of poverty, Karnas said, “are related to access to employment, access to quality education, obviously racism”.

This disappointment in Carson was echoed by Diane Yentel, head of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. After Carson’s confirmation hearing in January, Yentel said the new housing secretary had “clearly taken the time to begin to understand and come to appreciate the importance of HUD’s programs”. In response to his comments yesterday, however, she criticized his “tired & offensive cliches” in a tweet.

Robert Reich, the secretary of labor under Bill Clinton, tweeted: “So 15 million American children in poverty just need better attitudes and they’ll have food in their stomachs and roofs over their heads?”

Carson’s comments were not the only cause for concern for those working on poverty-related issues this week.

The Trump administration’s 2018 budget calls for cuts of $6.2bn, or 13.2%, to HUD, alongside deep reductions in expenditures on Medicaid and food stamps. Although Congress will ultimately come up with its own spending plan, the president’s budget is taken as a reflection of his philosophy and priorities.

Carson did not seem fazed by the possible slimming down of his agency. The budget proposal “reflects this administration’s commitment to fiscal responsibility while continuing HUD’s core support of our most vulnerable households”, he said in a statement, and states, local governments and the private sector were intended to pick up the slack.

Carson was always an unlikely choice for his job. His experience in government is essentially limited to his 2016 presidential candidacy, and he is known for zany pronouncements – for instance, that the pyramids were grain storehouses rather than pharaonic tombs. This seemed of little concern to his supporters; during his confirmation hearing, Senator Mike Rounds said that “probably running this department is not really brain surgery.”

Still, Carson’s hardscrabble upbringing – an adviser said his “mother worked three jobs at a time to keep them out of public housing” – and his medical background had suggested to some that he might bring empathy and a valuable perspective to the role.

For one man currently experiencing poverty, Carson’s charge about his mental state rankles.

“I challenge Ben Carson or anyone of his choosing with the ‘right mindset’ to step into my life on the streets,” said Brett Anderson, a homeless man who resides with his family in an RV in San Francisco. It would not be so easy, he said, to find a way out.


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