When Dr. Ben Carson was announced as the nominee for HUD Secretary, it was pointed out that he had never worked in government and had no experience in housing. When he took questions before the Senate, it was pointed out that he barely mentioned anything to do with housing (and was barely promoted to). And when he went on his listening tour shortly after becoming Secretary, it was pointed out that he praised the results of programs that would likely be cut or eliminated by his boss. Now that the budget is officially here, and does include devastating cuts to HUD, it’s safe to say that Secretary Carson is as bad as housing advocates feared. But truthfully, he has been everything the Trump Administration wanted him to be. The implication for our country is disheartening.
I know it’s harsh to refer to Secretary Carson as a “useful idiot” but he is the literal definition of the term. President Trump is cynically using Dr. Carson to go along with policies that the doctor (and, frankly, the President) doesn’t fully understand for purposes he may also not fully appreciate. Dr. Carson seems quite content with the arrangement.
It is unlikely that Secretary Carson was consulted or even notified of the budget cuts outlined for HUD. I’m not entirely convinced he knows what is in the budget. Not that the department is even staffed enough to have anyone around to tell him. Despite Dr. Carson’s testimony during the nomination to defend the mission and programs of his department, he has done nothing of the sort and never intended to.
This was all from the White House. The department faces cuts of 15%, or $7.4 billion, which would include the elimination of bedrock programs like the Community Development Block Grant, the Housing Trust Fund, HOME investment partnerships, capital funding for public housing, and many other regional rental assistance programs. Hundreds of thousands of poor, young, old, disabled, or otherwise vulnerable Americans would lose housing assistance in the midst of the affordable housing crisis.
Secretary Carson has still been useful by putting a genial face on what is a dark, cruel vision of public policy that has emerged as the only through-line in the Trump Administration. Secretary Carson has made national headlines for two statements that reflect the naked truth of the Trump Administration but spares the President of having to say them himself: Fuck the Poor.
First he said that public housing, or presumably any subsidized housing, shouldn’t be “too comfortable” for residents because they won’t be motivated to find other housing. Second (and not for the first time) he called poverty a “state of mind."
These comments are horrifying and stupid for several reasons.
Let’s look at the first statement. The logic that public/assisted housing should only be temporary was abandoned decades ago by HUD because it never made sense to begin with. Providing permanently affordable housing for low-income families is a worthy public investment because it creates more economic opportunity for individuals and communities, reduces public spending in other supportive services, and maintains a mixing of income (and by extension, racial) groups that is fundamentally necessary for the health of our civil society.
If residents have the opportunity to move up the economic and housing latter, then great, American mobility is working. But, more accurate to today, if they have to stay economically, or want to stay socially, they shouldn’t be punished with Spartan accommodations. Where are the good jobs and opportunities in our economy today? Decades of terrible economic policy have trapped millions of Americans in all corners of the country. The idea that this housing shouldn’t be “too comfortable” is not only cruel and condescending, it is ignorant and classist.
Which brings us to Secretary Carson’s second statement about poverty being a state of mind. This statement is so utterly wrong on its merit, so astonishingly ahistorical, and so morally debased that in a healthier society, we would have demanded and received his resignation.
Our brand of American exceptionalism has always had a darker tone when it comes to poverty. We romanticize the idea that anyone can do anything if they work hard enough, and point to any number of anecdotal stories to show this kind of success. However, this allows us to ignore the larger structures in our society that have exploited the poor and vulnerable from the founding of our republic to present day – from Native Americans to slaves, to immigrants, to women and children, to veterans and foreign workers.
It’s why our national consciousness remembers the wagon trains of western expansion more than the violent removal and murder of Native Americans to achieve it. It’s why we recall the great industrial expansion during the Gilded Age through the mansions of the robber barons without remembering their violent suppression of labor strikes at places like Tompkins Square in 1874 or on Grand Street in 1886. Its why we gloss over MLK's true message of economic justice for a waterer-down version of inclusiveness.
Dr. Carson’s views on poverty are no doubt shaped by his own exceptional life story (which, unlike the President, he achieved on his own.) He has made a lucrative second career as a writer and motivational speaker by telling willing audiences that he overcame poverty and achieved greatness, reaffirming this great narrative of America by personifying it himself.
But is everyone blessed with Dr. Carson’s brain? How many other poor young men and women – who likely had equally strong and dedicated mothers - were unable to achieve even modest economic prosperity? For every Dr. Carson, there are a hundred anonymous poor who, if even acknowledged by our broader society, are blamed for their condition.
That this blame is also leveled by a man like Dr. Carson, who should know better given his background, his stated religious beliefs, and his position in government, shows everything that is wrong with our country today.
We can debate the likelihood of the cuts in the president’s budget actually passing and take some hope in knowing that many won’t. We can hide behind the fact that Dr. Carson is simply inexperienced and overwhelmed in government. We can tell ourselves that the economy is doing well, that it could even improve, and that anyway it’s only a small portion of people impacted by these cuts.
But this thinking would let us all off the hook. We can’t turn away from what is staring right in front of us. Our society is growing crueler. Our government, and even President Trump, is only a reflection of this. Our illness runs much deeper.
We are looking at the challenges posed by globalization, coming automation, and climate change with tax cuts for the wealthy and program cuts for everyone else. We are blaming the poor for their condition and excusing the mega rich for theirs. We are lying about the past, ignoring the true problems of the present, and betraying the future - for nothing.
Yes, we can start by demanding Secretary Carson step down. We can continue by blocking the president’s housing agenda (and general agenda) and voting him out (if it comes to that). But we must acknowledge that the cruelty running through our society is a much larger plague that must be eradicated.
We must discover a new civic spirit and a new commitment to our shared republican values of liberty, justice, and peace. We must acknowledge that these values are only viable when every citizen has access to them. We must create a government that reflects the supremacy of collective effort and shared benefit over exploitation and selfish gain. We must reject the ideology that says we are on our own. That has never been anything but an excuse for the bigger fish to eat the little ones. America is greater than that.